Social Value vital to level up UK, say expert conference panel

Social value has a vital role to play in levelling-up society and should be incorporated at every stage of any project, according to leading industry figures. Rob O’Connor reports.

Social value has a vital role to play in levelling-up society and should be incorporated both at the start and through the whole lifecycle of any new projects, according to leading industry experts from across the construction and infrastructure sectors.

Over 300 leading industry figures heard a senior civil servant and two expert panels discuss social value – one of the hottest topics facing the construction sector – at a special online Social Value and Construction conference on Friday 26 March 2021.

The conference, organised in association with Infrastructure Intelligence’s Events and Communications Strategic Partner, BECG, focussed on the issue of social value and construction, mapping a way forward that can future-proof projects for generations to come and help to deliver a social legacy for construction and infrastructure.

Social value is increasingly being highlighted as a crucial requirement on construction and infrastructure projects, with more and more clients asking for the companies they work with to quantify the social good they can deliver on projects. But how good is the industry at putting people and their needs at the very heart of the way in which it designs and delivers projects? The online conference looked at how to ensure that infrastructure is maximising all the opportunities available to it to leave a positive social legacy.

Senior civil servant Samantha Butler, head of social value and skills at the Cabinet Office, described the UK government’s new social value policy for procurement as making every pound work as hard as it can for local communities in the post-Covid recovery.

“The government is buying and making procurement decisions in a way that benefits local communities and the environment,” she said, highlighting that evaluation of social value in the provision of goods and services, central reporting on social value on large government contracts and a commitment to mandatory training for 30,000 contract managers across government departments was all part of the new policy.

Butler also highlighted that the government was looking for more consistency from suppliers in their approach to social value. She also said that the industry should be ambitious and go further with social value rather than settle for minimum standards, while pointing out that the government was flexible enough to encourage more SMEs to play a positive role in focussing on social value.

“We must ensure that promises made are promises delivered,” said Butler. “The Covid-19 recovery is about helping communities recover from the pandemic, creating new jobs and skills, developing new markets and fighting climate change. Social value is at the heart of improving the health and wellbeing of local communities, delivering for communities, embedding best practice throughout the industry and ensuring a consistent approach right across the government machine,” Butler said.

Panel discussion 1: What is social value?

Catherine Manning, interim CEO of Social Value UK, said that people were at the heart of social value and that the industry needed to adapt to meet growing environmental challenges and inequality on a global scale. “Social Value is about people’s lives, the changes people experience in their lives (good and bad) and the value that they place on those changes,” said Manning.  

Highlighting maximum value and accountability as two key areas of creating positive social value, she said: “As greater emphasis is put on social value in larger and longer-term contracts, the need for confidence, verification and accountability of the claims is getting more and more critical. This is where third party assurance and accreditation of social value is absolutely necessary as we drive the social value movement forwards, and to ensure the substance in the value.

“All of this is dependent on our culture and mindset, individually and as organisations. We must be willing to realise that that will mean changing all of our business and organisational practice, and addressing power imbalances. The huge and growing inequality and environmental challenges we face in this country and globally depend on it.”  

Natalie Cropp, sustainability director at Tony Gee and Partners and also technical lead of value definition at the Construction Innovation Hub described how a holistic combination of the construction industry Value Toolkit and the four capitals approach is driving better social, environmental and economic outcomes through value-based decision-making. “This means better outcomes from what we deliver and how we deliver it, leading to a more sustainable built environment and a more sustainable model for our industry,” she said. 

Ally Kennedy, director of industry communications specialists BECG, said the opportunities to improve people’s understanding of social value and realise the potential to deliver more impactful outcomes on projects are absolutely huge. “The industry and key stakeholders need to be brought on the journey – through strong advocacy and communication – so that they understand these opportunities and, crucially, don’t see any future requirements around Social Value as a burden or some kind of “hurdle to clear,” said Kennedy.

“Social value needs to be specific, tangible and measurable – but it also needs to be impactful, put people at the centre and not drift into the territory of formulaic box-ticking. Communications agencies are fortunate enough to be right at the centre and interface between communities, developers, local authorities and other stakeholders. That gives us quite a unique perspective on the opportunities and challenges around social value, and the communications industry has a huge role to play in successfully pushing the social value agenda,” he said.

Peter McDermott, professor of construction procurement at the University of Salford, said: “We can learn about implementing social value from elsewhere, where there has been an over-riding social, economic or environmental imperative. Highlighting that social value was “nothing new under the sun,” he cited post-apartheid South Africa as a global example of a country that pivoted overnight to use procurement power as a tool to help previously excluded communities.

Raising the issue of balancing cost into the whole lifespan of a project, he said: “The potential to generate and improve social value is not the same on all projects, programmes, or indeed frameworks. The search for the lowest possible price is not compatible with the successful delivery of social value.”

Panel discussion 2: Delivering social value on construction projects

Wesley Ankrah, founder and managing director of Seerbridge, said that best practice should start at the procurement stage, with communities also closely involved in the decision-making process. “Understanding local communities and the local environment is how you achieve best practice,” said Ankrah. “Look at all the local policy drivers, understand what local communities are looking for and needing. There’s a massive issue around deprivation and wellbeing, and this a great chance for providers to introduce social value through the procurement model.

“Look at the lifetime of a project, create a value for the whole lifetime of the project and involve the community in the decision-making process. It’s surprising how much that is missed out. It’s all about driving best practice that delivers genuine long-lasting social value for local communities.”

Vicky Hutchinson, environment practice director of infrastructure UK and Europe at Atkins, said: “Social value should be at the heart of everything we do. We need to maximise social value throughout the business case for each project, incorporating social value and sustainability into all project designs. That needs collaboration between all sectors of the industry, including economists, planners and environmentalists to deliver positive social value.”

Alison Watson, chief executive of Class Of Your Own, said that social value, planning and education needed better co-ordination in order to work effectively. “The Covid-driven move to digital presents the industry with its greatest ever opportunity to rewrite the rules of community engagement,” said Watson. 

“We can engage young people and the wider community anywhere in the country to get involved and ‘level up’ the country in terms of access to the profound education and skills opportunities a major infrastructure project can offer. However, social value, planning and education policy isn’t joined up – it’s the blocker that stops all the above happening,” she said.

Louise Dailly, head of legacy at Costain/Skanska HS2 joint venture, said that strong local collaboration was key to leaving a positive social legacy for communities around HS2. “HS2 is more than just a transport project – it’ll create a long lasting social legacy,” Dailly said. “Collaboration is key to delivering positive social value for communities and we work with local public, private and charity sectors to benefit the local communities around HS2, joining forces for the wider good,” she said.

Gerard Toplass, executive chairman of procurement specialists Pagabo and CEO of the Social Profit Calculator, said that social value was essential to help the country level-up. “We support the complete incorporation of social value into procurement,” said Toplass. “There’s a definite sea change, with social value becoming increasingly important across the industry. For example, including a strong and clear commitment to social value is a real benefit for helping to win planning approval for new projects.

“But more than that, social value is essential to help the country level up. Social value will help the country emerge from the pandemic stronger and better - and the future workplace will be a different and more diverse place,” he said.

Leighton Cardwell, cities director – Leeds at Jacobs, said: “Social value needs to be planned early in the development process, well before construction and procurement, to maximise whole life social value and to ensure a clear vision for the outcomes required.

“Acting to support clients implement social value is really important to harness the full potential of investments - especially across the supply chain of complex infrastructure projects.”  

Infrastructure Intelligence editor Andy Walker said: “This event was our first longer-form online conference and we believe it was successful, with many useful points raised from our speakers and the audience. Importantly, we were able to glean from all our speakers several areas and issues around social value that we want to explore further and we will be returning to these during 2021 and most certainly in a Social Value Infrastructure Intelligence digital supplement which we will be publishing later in the year.”

Click here to watch a recording of the Social Value and Construction online conference

The Infrastructure Intelligence LIVE series of events is organised in association with our Events and Communications Strategic Partner, BECG

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email