This NLA webinar hosted by Sarah Wardle, Associate Director at BECG, brought together four experts in different approaches to creating and delivering social value and looked at how these sit within the planning process and asking whether metrics are the answer?
Social value in planning policy and guidance
To set us all off on a common position, I set the scene with some background on how social value is defined as the coming together of social, environmental, and economic factors in a way that works for people, and the broad range of things it is sometimes called. I introduced an idea for a spectrum of social value that starts at the more minimal end with employment and skills plans, and across to more all-encompassing community wealth building approaches.
A key challenge discussed was that social value isn’t currently explicitly defined in the planning system at the moment but aspects of it, such as in terms of place quality and community benefits are positively identified. We concluded that there was some way to go but the right core ambitions sit at the heart of planning.
Talking through case studies where Councils and planning authorities have included social value explicitly in policy and guidance helped us all understand how this can be approached and the challenges, including the tools and metrics that might be needed. It was agreed that alongside metrics, strong leadership and a level of realism around what planning can measure and monitor is going to be required.
Social impact through a wellbeing lens
Nicola Rochford, the community engagement lead for Grosvenor talked us through their researched based wellbeing strategy and how it has been established to inform and shape projects - working with tenants, suppliers and partners to have a measurable impacts that respond to local needs.
The wellbeing strategy is called ‘People Positive’ and has three strategic priories, firstly, improving people’s wellbeing in the places they make and manage, secondly helping local economies to thrive by championing inclusive growth and diversity, and lastly through maximising the positive impact of their people and partners. Wellbeing is the focus as it is a widely adopted measure at global and national level, for example through the ONS Wellbeing dashboard, although it often isn’t well understood to the built environment industry. The more nuanced way wellbeing is measured through asking directly how people feel, what they need and its focus on actual direct impact makes it harder for the metrics to be tick box and to take account of Community voice. Measured against clear data sets this is a very powerful tool.
Community engagement as a key component of social value
Mike Saunders, the CEO of Commonplace, brought the discussion around to metrics and his clear view that they are not everything and agreed we need to recognise the benefit of real conversations, in person or through digital means. Commonplace’s own research has identified that people want to be able to have influence and feel listened to and that the questions we ask need to help us map local issues and needs and to track these in a transparent way.
Jane Custance, Director of Planning and Development at the London Borough of Newham talked about how their Local Plan refresh is considering a range of social value measures focussed on the priorities of local people identified through community assemblies. The focus is on making places that people want to live in and that are clean, pleasant and support mental health – topics that are harder to put into policy and to measure but important. The use of the Neighbourhood Community Infrastructure Levy (NCIL) – as part of a participatory budgeting model - has let local people impact directly on Council projects and has done a lot to deliver social cohesion and tangibly deliver better places.
The need for meaningful simplicity and and a national framework
In summary there was strong support for planning’s role in delivering and monitoring social value, wellbeing or whatever we decide to call the many ways physical change can have a positive impact on people. However, we must carefully balance the complexity of these issues with making sure things are meaningful and that benefits are actually delivered.
There was a clear view that baseline and impact data is an important part of social value and that we need to get better at gathering and sharing information in a secure but consistent way about places, as well as the individual buildings that planning applications are most often concerned with. Tracking has to come from policy – developers will do what they are told but only if it has teeth and is something that it is clear the planning system expects and values.
My key takeaway was the general agreement that some kind of national framework related to planning and social value and/or wellbeing would be very useful and that this needs to facilitate local priorities as well. Any national social value in planning framework should make good use the work that has already been done by a range of built environment organisations and any requirements arising from it proportionate to different sizes of project, place and organisation.