Social value has been a hot topic in 2020, with a range of toolkits, reports and consultations published this year (e.g. RIBA, Institute of Civil Engineers, Construction Innovation Hub, UKGBC, Social Value Portal, RTPI). Additionally, several local authorities have included social value in their draft local policies, including Salford and Islington. Developers have also been promoting their social value ethos and credentials via webinars and seminars during the 2020 lockdowns.
However, the government’s ‘Planning for the Future’ White Paper, published in August 2020, never specifically mentions social value and only loosely refers to ‘social need’ and ‘social justice’, despite the concept’s increasing popularity. Social value knits together many elements that underpin the planning system, most noticeably that of sustainable development. By recognising this and by embedding social value principles, better placemaking can be achieved.
Current State of Social Value and Planning
In planning terms, social value is about achieving positive social, economic, and environmental impacts. This is not a new idea in the built environment profession. This concept has long been embedded at a strategic policy level, notably through the United Nations ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ and within England’s own National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Indeed, Sustainable Development is cited as a core urban planning principle in the UK, underpinned by three pillars: an economic objective; a social objective; and an environmental objective.
The trio of objectives which underpin social value as a concept, and which the built environment should be targeting, are vital to achieving successful, sustainable, ethical, and properly functioning towns and cities.
However, even though Sustainable Development is a prominent element of our planning system, social value is widely misunderstood and often equated solely with providing employment opportunities in the construction phase of new development. This is perhaps encouraged by the increased monetisation of social value outcomes, where employment and apprenticeships often generate the highest proxy values.
One explanation for these misunderstanding stems from the practical difficulties in measuring what the actual social value benefits of a development scheme are, aside from employment, along with the challenge of producing tangible and meaningful results which can be monitored.
The process of understanding social value and encouraging the implementation of it in new development must first come from the development of a robust understanding of local need. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) have created a toolkit, in their ‘Measuring What Matters’ research which can be used in the plan preparation process to reflect and identify where value can be added through the planning system. This approach is reflective of considering the whole life of social value during planning, from why design choices should be made, to opportunities during construction, and operational use.
The RTPI research does not mention social value explicitly, although the terms social, economic and environmental value or impact are mentioned repeatedly throughout the document.
The intention of the toolkit is to help practitioners understand the impact of planning policy and development management, but the RTPI also envisions that this toolkit will be useful to developers, investors and consultants seeking an outcomes-based approach to their development proposals and/ or compliance with wider policy aims.
The toolkit is to be used on a specific geographical area (test pilots have already been undertaken in Scotland and Ireland) to test the influence of the planning system based around the following eight themes based on UN sustainability principles:
The RTPI’s toolkit allows a more holistic approach for measuring planning impacts rather than the existing AMRs produced by LPAs which typically focus on planning process rather than the outcomes of planning.
Supporting the idea of a mind-set shift away from process and timescales to addressing wider local need through planning impact and outcomes can only be a positive move for encouraging place-based thinking. This is seen in the increasing popularity of concepts, such as the 20-minute neighbourhood, encouraging thinking about planning and development to ensure that our basic daily needs are met without the need for long journeys.
Notwithstanding this, there are challenges which arise from taking a holistic approach. Firstly, it is not always easy to establish robust baselines and methods of measuring success. If outcomes are to be measured and ultimately scored or judged as improvements or not, defining what each of those sustainability principles really mean to each geographic area and what objectives they are trying to achieve is vital. A crucial method to understanding the specific focus for a local area should be through effective community and stakeholder engagement, ensuring that multiple demographics are represented.
A second challenge is resourcing, local authorities already struggle with resourcing in their planning departments. As a result, implementing a review and monitoring process over and above the minimum required for local plan preparation and decision-making presents a challenge unless additional funding can be secured. The evaluation of social value documents submitted as part of planning applications is needed to ensure that social value does not become a tick box exercise and there is accountability for the delivery of these promises.
A coalition of industry partners, including Temple, submitted a response to the Government White Paper, outlining the omission of social value in the proposals and suggesting areas where there is significant alignment with the concept. This includes community engagement, digital planning and use of S106 and levy funds.
In the meantime, councils are embedding social value as part of their planning policy, and social value statements are increasingly being seen in individual planning applications. This bottom up activity in the sphere of social value is encouraging, although developers and place-makers who are serious about creating sustainable value should be engaging in strategic decisions to embed social value across their activities, rather than on a piecemeal, project by project basis.
These approaches are already being developed by forward thinking developers. For example, Temple have created a Social Sustainability Policy for London & Continental Railway (LCR) to use across their clients’ developments. This includes a five-step process that enables key social sustainability priorities to be embedded across the project lifecycle – these priorities are process-focused rather than quantitative targets.
As part of the process indicators are developed to ensure that themes such as community resilience are being targeted, which includes engaging with and reporting on who, how often and how effective this engagement is.
If this same framework scope is applied to the concept of measuring planning impacts for LPAs, Temple recommends detailed, robust and place-specific assessment of local need which whittles down the broad themes to focus on the local priorities for a particular area.
There is more work to be done in implementing social value in Local Plan policy. This can be realised through greater widespread understanding, analysis, stakeholder engagement and identifying those outcomes for an area that communities want to see.