Do We Need a Pan-London Approach to Social Value?

Rob Wolfe

I was recently asked to speak at the Future of London Conference and I was impressed with the way the panel discussed social value. So often, social value is treated as a theory, some heady ideal. However, the contributors at this conference talked about practice and delivery as well, making it much more tangible and real. One of the topics they touched on was implementing a pan-London approach to social value in construction and the built environment and that is something that I am very keen to see come to fruition.

Social Value in London

In previous blogs I’ve discussed the definition of ‘local’ when it comes to embedding social value in a project. There are a host of different factors, such as transport links and population density that mean ‘local’ for one project in one part of the country is very different from ‘local’ for another project elsewhere. In my opinion, when it comes to London, it makes little sense to have different rules and practices in each of the 32 boroughs because people move backwards and forwards across those political borders fluidly. They are imaginary divisions in the practicality of day-to-day life, so it makes more sense for the boroughs to collaborate rather than compete.

Our radical collaboration with the Open Data Institute is working towards visualising this in order to change the traditional and outmoded way in which some in the industry think, but for now, this post is dedicated to putting forward a case for a pan-London approach to social value.

Implications of NOT Embedding a Pan-London Approach

Let us think about the implications of NOT embedding a pan-London approach to social value. Imagine if each borough had its own corporation tax, income tax and National Insurance system. It would be chaos. Well, apply that to how social value works when divided down borough lines.

The implications of not embedding a pan London approach, in my view:

  • There is little collaboration and learning across different boroughs in London due to the use of different processes, requirements and measures. We cannot show best practice in an objective way it is anecdotal at best and PR spin at worst.
  • There is no accountability for the industry or its clients. Without a collaborative approach, contractors and developers can renege on social value promises in one borough and secure planning based on new promises in a neighbouring borough. They can also present the same excuses on every project. I have kept a standard checklist for many years now on these excuses, all of which have been put forward and resolved.
  • There are chronic inefficiencies developed as we attempt to reinvent the social value wheel across the 32 boroughs. This, in turn, requires contractors to do the same and produces further inefficiency. If an innovative sport-focused employability project is working well in Hammersmith & Fulham why can’t that be implemented in Barking & Dagenham?  
  • We don’t address the challenges highlighted in the government’s industrial strategy. To move towards a cheaper, more efficient and productive way of building the city’s infrastructure, commercial space and homes, the industry is exploring and implementing the benefits of offsite construction and design for manufacturing & assembly (DfMA). This challenges our thinking around social value and, it could be said, goes against current measures on local spend, employment and skills. Having said this, it can enable huge benefits in workforce skills, sustainable well-paid employment and better working environments; meeting the requirements of the Unite Construction Charter.

Benefits of a Pan-London Approach to Social Value

We address these issues by instigating a pan-London approach, but that doesn’t stop us providing a localised approach too. This benefits the capital as a whole. The boroughs move forward together, sharing best practice and cutting red tape for the boroughs themselves and for the industry.

When looking through local Inclusive Growth Strategies, Economic Wellbeing Strategies and Community Manifestoes, the headlines remain the same: A healthier and happier community with access to good, sustainable employment; meaningful and relevant education and training to meet the requirements of local businesses; and support to start and develop their enterprise and secure inward investment.

London Social Value

We can develop outcomes and measures that feed into these aspirations but, more importantly, are based on localised need and demographic data.

For instance; since the 2013 Social Value Act, a key focus has been on the creation of apprenticeships, which we measure in number of starts, numbers supported and/or number of weeks apprentices spend on site.

Looking at data available from the Department for Education and Official National Statistics, only 0.6% of the construction (and built environment) workforce was starting or completing an apprenticeship in 2017/18. This varied from 0.19% to 2.5% across London boroughs. A standardised approach could see us agree that we would set targets in construction of 2% above the borough’s average and target and measure how many apprentices are starting and how many are completing, based on the forecasted construction workforce required for the project.  

This would allow us to see how boroughs, projects, construction businesses and our collaborative approach is moving the underlying data in the right direction and increasing the number, skills and qualifications of London residents entering the industry. It also enables us to update procurement targets for apprenticeships in line with current data.

The Next Step for a Pan-London Approach

I believe that social value is all about people and that should always drive our strategies and measures. But I also believe that to enable real impactful change for those people and to encourage, coerce and require businesses and organisations to have a positive social impact on the communities in which they operate, we need to objectify our headline measures, have a consistent requirement aligned with flexible implementation, and be able to compare geographical areas, industries and projects.  

So what needs to happen to make this work? Nothing! The thinking, practice and expertise is already there; we just need to have the appetite to make it happen. Those with the power to convene need to enable us to come together and agree a radically collaborative way forward.