Atkins Zoe Metcalfe outlines how the UK needs to rethink and fund social value to help communities thrive.
Despite repeated efforts, too many places in Britain are suffering from underinvestment, weakening social ties, and shrinking natural resources - leading to a sense of betrayal and hopelessness.
To deliver the kind of social goods that help places to thrive, we need to rethink how we define, measure, and fund ‘value’.
That’s why we’re contributing to a new model of capital, offering a more nuanced and realistic picture of what social value really looks like.
Today, a unique confluence of challenges has made regeneration not just a social priority but a public emergency.
Covid-19, the ecological crisis, and demographic change are putting enormous pressures on local councils. Brexit, geopolitical instability, and climate change are making the UK’s future less and less certain - with no significant transformation in policy.
As a result, too many places are being left behind. There’s a chronic shortage of housing, our environment is collapsing, and the trust that sustains our communities is disappearing.
It doesn’t have to be like this. New ideas, technologies, and approaches have the power to transform how we perceive, tackle, and overcome these challenges.
Only through a paradigm shift can we repair our relationship with nature, create neighbourhoods genuinely conducive to wellbeing, unlock opportunity and make our country thrive.
The government-backed Construction and Innovation Hub has partnered with over 200 organisations across our sector to produce the Value Toolkit, to reimagine what value is and how we measure it.
We’re now recognising that cost and time-to-build are very limited measures of social good. Applied in isolation, they can approve projects whose social impact is doubtful, while rendering more valuable programmes as prohibitively costly or inefficient.
To improve how we measure what we value, we must redefine capital. A pluralistic lens can create a more nuanced picture of a programme’s true impact.
Atkins is one of the contributors to the Value Toolkit. It enriches the bottom line by expanding our notions of capital to better reflect the needs of the communities we are serving. Alongside financial capital, the Value Toolkit elevates natural capital, human capital, social capital, and produced capital, with climate underpinning them all. Together, these metrics paint a far more realistic picture of social good.
No trust, no way
For the construction industry, social capital refers to consultation, influence, and connections in local areas, all of which shape people’s perceptions of the projects in their communities.
If it sounds soft, consider that one of the most consistent indicators of deprivation is a breakdown of trust. That’s why social capital must play a part in measuring value. Construction projects that don’t properly consult local communities are liable to violate trust.
Consultation is about genuine engagement. Too often, construction has treated it as a tick-box exercise. Today, there are so many ways to engage local communities: not just to formally introduce and debate the issue, but to offer inclusive, meaningful, and inspiring avenues towards consensus.
Funding the future
Of course, finance still matters. ESG, green investments, and ethical or social value investments are all impacting the corporate world. Yet while these funds may be looking to finance new ways, they’re still bound by many of the traditional imperatives of financial institutions.
In other words, the investment must still be attractive and economically viable. Large funds need large propositions. But because our planning and procurement process favours fragmentation over agglomeration of assets, the pathways from fund to frontline are blocked.
By reshaping regeneration around the broader notions of capital, and then channelling ethical funds through new pathways, we can enable willing investors to fund specific aspects of social good.
It’s only natural
Regenerating our communities holistically means seeing the natural environment as more than just a backdrop.
The Economics of Biodiversity, Sir Partha Dasgupta’s 2021 review published by the Treasury, convincingly demonstrated the deep economic value that our natural environment offers.
If we are to nurture healthy, thriving communities, nature is our indispensable ally. And it’s not just a matter for the countryside: incorporating nature into our cities is crucial to making them more liveable and less toxic.
We’re only just beginning to discover just how deeply entwined the human organism and the natural environment really are - and these insights can help us to create healthy, harmonious, and beneficial spaces for all.
The road ahead is beset with obstacles. Britain is facing a unique mix of challenges - short term and long term, familiar and novel, local and national. Rather than lower our expectations or tighten our belts, we can choose to change, to improve how we measure, consider, and deliver social value.
In the face of today’s challenges, now is the time to repair, restore, and regenerate.
Zoe Metcalfe is Atkins client director for local and central government.