This year’s National Social Value Conference took place on the 23rd and 24th of February 2021. The theme of the Conference was ‘Recover, Rebuild, Renew’ and discussions across the seminars focused on how communities should be supported to ensure that they can equally recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Social value is a statutory feature in UK Government procurement policy and businesses bidding to win public sector work are required to demonstrate how they will deliver social value initiatives. Although there is a focus on community-led regeneration and improving the economic, physical and social fabric of disadvantaged communities in planning legislation, the concept of social value itself does not presently feature.

Social Value

There are wide ranging definitions as to what constitutes social value. A number of these definitions have been set out in the UK Green Building Council’s ‘Framework for Defining Social Value’, which was recently published in February 2021.

What each of the definitions have in common is the recognition that social value includes economic, environmental and social outcomes, all of which collectively focus on improving people’s quality of life and well-being.

Social value can encompass a variety of positive financial or non-financial community benefits, which typically cannot be defined by traditional market economics, including:-

  • Improving the mental health and well-being of individuals and communities;
  • Enhancing employability and skills training;
  • Reducing homelessness;
  • Increasing access to quality public realm, green spaces and local amenities; and
  • Reducing or mitigating adverse environmental impacts.

How can social value be integrated into the planning process?

A key topic of discussion at the National Social Value Conference was how can social value be embedded into the planning process?

Panel members leading the conversation included Mark Dickens, who is the Lead Spatial Planning Officer at the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, as well as Claire Thorn, who is the Principal Planning Officer at Salford City Council.

A number of available planning measures were discussed, which included:-

  • Pre-Planning Application Consultation

It was unanimously agreed between panel members that the best way to embed social value in the planning process is at the pre-planning application stage.

Current planning legislation across the UK places a requirement on developers of major application proposals to engage with the communities where their proposed developments will be located. Although these statutory requirements differ across the UK, the shared principle of promoting engagement with communities is to ensure that they have a say in any development that might affect them.

Engaging with communities at the pre-planning application stage can assist developers in understanding local priorities and identifying issues that are specific to a particular community. For any social value initiatives that are created in response to the priorities or issues identified, in order for them to be successful and deliver meaningful change, panel members discussed that these should be created in partnership with communities and not for communities. 

There are existing tools that can assist in identifying local priorities, which includes the Place Standard Tool in Scotland. Public consultation events are also an opportunity to learn about a community’s wants and needs for their area.

The Covid-19 pandemic has rapidly accelerated digitaliastion and positively pushed the planning profession towards the increased use of online forms of public consultation. We have found that the move to online exhibitions has assisted in raising the attendance of events, albeit virtually, when compared with the pre-Covid in-person consultations we would host.

Online consultations may assist in reaching those members of communities who typically wouldn’t have attended in-person events, as the ability to attend anonymously and from the comfort of one’s own home, can certainly be considered as more convenient.

However, as discussed at the Conference, an on-going challenge of any public consultation at the pre-planning application stage is to ensure that the ‘silent majority’ are reached, who in some cases, are often the members of communities who need social value initiatives the most.

  • Planning Policy

The need to include social value in planning policy was also debated.

Mark Dickens presented the efforts of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, who intend to create a strategic social value policy in their emerging Spatial Development Strategy. He advised that the intention in creating a policy framework at the regional level was to allow members to create their own social value policies at the Local Plan level, which can respond to and be specific to their individual needs.

Claire Thorn explained the social value policy that features in the Salford Local Plan, which is currently at the proposed modifications stage. The ‘Social Value and Inclusion’ policy seeks to ensure that all development in Salford will contribute to making the city more socially inclusive and requires all major developments to submit a Social Value Strategy at the planning application stage, for the approval of the Council.

Panel members agreed that if social value is to be included in planning policy, then this must be embedded at the Development Plan level, to ensure that it becomes a statutory requirement for all developers.

Although the notion of social value has not been explicitly mentioned in the latest position statement, as Scotland awaits the publication of its fourth National Planning Framework, this potentially presents the opportunity for social value to be integrated at the Development Plan level in Scotland.

  • Planning Conditions and Legal Agreements

The use of conditions and legal agreements were also highlighted as routes to securing social value initiatives through planning. Legal agreements were favoured by panel members as the most successful way to secure positive social outcomes for communities, as unlike planning conditions, it was discussed that legal agreements allow for contributions to be obtained for initiatives located out with the boundary of a development site.

Project viability and the availability of funding will likely be key challenges when it comes to creating and investing in short and longer term social value initiatives.

However, as we emerge from lockdown into our post-Covid 19 world, the notion of social value and improving our quality of life feels more important than ever. It’s undeniable that the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected communities and across the built environment profession there appears to be a growing realisation that in addition to achieving economic growth and environmental enhancements, we must collectively do our part to improve social outcomes and community well-being.

As a firm, we are actively consulting with communities on behalf of our clients across the country and our work to assist clients in embedding social value, as an integral part of their development projects, is growing. If you’re interested in finding out more, please get in touch.