Are We Afraid of Communities? Delivering Real Social Value in Construction

One of the key social value aims of residential construction projects is to leave the community in a better state than we found it. That could be through employment opportunities for local residents or improvements to local services.

It seems only fair that we take into account the wishes and fears of communities if we’re planning to reconfigure the area in which they live. Whatever the changes are, it’s vital that the people living in the area feel they ‘own’ them.

However, as an industry, we struggle to engage communities properly. Quite often the ‘consultation’ that takes place is box ticking because, quite frankly, many developers, local authorities and contractors don’t want to listen to what communities have to say in case they don’t like what they hear.

Sometimes this is laziness and risk aversion. Sometimes it’s because we fear even if we listen to communities, they may not return the favour by trying to understand the reasons behind the changes taking place.

Inconvenient Consultations

Look closely and you’ll see how good we’ve become at avoiding these conversations. Why do consultation events take place at inconvenient times for residents? Why are they poorly promoted? I’ve witnessed first-hand a business congratulate themselves when no one turned up for a consultation. They had ticked the box of putting on the event, and now they could do what they like, safe in the knowledge they could use that as evidence they had ‘tried’.

But putting on a consultation event isn’t providing social value. Acting on the results of that consultation is where you make a real difference.  That tick in the box is meaningless, and will do nothing to extend your organisation’s social impact.

So how do we get better at listening to the communities we work in and empowering them to co-design their future?

Construction Loves the Status Quo

The first obstacle to overcome is our own resistance to change. We’re an industry still building for a nation that we assume wants mock-Georgian, mock-Edwardian and mock-Tudor properties and we rarely stop to ask people if they’d like anything different. Construction firms, housing developers and local authorities seem stuck in a cycle, frequently assuming that the public want what they think they want because they’ve not had a chance to tell them otherwise.

If we’re failing to ask questions about whether anybody even likes the look of what we’re building, what else might we be missing? Can we be sure that we are making the best social impact in the communities in which we work? Are our social value measures fit for purpose in 2024 – and beyond?

Without proper consultation we will never advance. At best, we’ll still have absolutely no hope of meeting people’s future needs.

The worst-case scenario is that we make their lives worse, and that doesn’t bear thinking about.

Consultation the Wrong Way Round

I’ve recently had first-hand experience of another non-consultancy – this time as a member of the community itself. Across the road from my house is a large old mill that is being converted into flats. I want the mill to be redeveloped and more affordable housing is greatly needed in the area. But there are genuine concerns about how this development will impact the day to day life of existing residents of our small street.

Parking is already severely limited, and due to our close proximity to the town centre there aren’t many other options. Soon there will be 24 new flats – but room for only seven cars (those seven spaces are already well used by the existing residents!).

There has been no public consultation event. The builders already have the okay from the highways department of the council. All complaints and discussions are useless because they have already sealed the deal.

This is consultation the wrong way round.

On the surface of it this is a simple parking issue, but underneath it’s a serious problem for access and community relations. As I’m updating this article in April 2024, the development is almost complete, my neighbours have not bought into it and doorstep arguments about parking, coupled with cones, are plentiful. Complaints against the developers are daily and on every subject from mud and noise to threatening  wildlife and trees; all of which have been managed extremely well by the developer in my view.  

Once labelled the friendliest street, I may shortly be living on a white picket fence-building NIMBY street instead, which will be a far greater loss than the parking spaces.

Why We’re Afraid of Communities

I do understand how public consultations can prove to be a hassle. As well as NIMBYs aplenty, you might even find a few BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything – brilliant, right?).

And as well as dealing with individuals who challenge us, delivering the necessary measures to provide real, objective social value to a community takes time and effort. We can’t just assume what we have always done on similar projects will be enough. Each situation is different and that requires a bespoke approach each time.

Community engagement is rarely a quick win, but it is absolutely worth doing. We need to consult in the correct way, to listen to concerns, to fight our corner when we need to, but also to be willing to adapt and change when there is something we can do that will truly provide social value to a project.

Can we learn from the tech businesses and entrepreneurs who consult with their users, engage and enthuse them in a positive discussion to get an end result everyone is happier with?