Planning Reforms: Data can shine a light on the true social value of development

By Liam Ronan-Chlond | 21 September 2020

The Government is promising a planning revolution, with the recently published Planning White Paper proposing to re-set how land is utilised for development and use technology to set housing targets.

While the housing algorithm has raised some concerns, the Government is right to look at how technology can be embedded into what has become an antiquated process to accelerate the delivery of housing, community amenities and the workspace needed to support the economic recovery.

Development is not just about buildings. It is also about people. Technology has a crucial role to play in understanding the needs of local communities and measuring the real social, economic and environmental impact of development projects.

There has always been a requirement to deliver community benefits through development, but this has primarily been through the Section 106 agreement, funded by developers and usually administered by the local authority.  Local residents can often end up being bypassed in this process.

One of the major changes sweeping through the development sector today is the focus on social value; the desire to go above and beyond Section 106 obligations to work directly with communities to improve local outcomes.

Developers, like many other businesses, are becoming more attuned to the wider contribution they can make, but there is a commercial incentive too:  long-term investors stand a better chance of success if they really understand the places and communities they are working in.  Early engagement and fostering relationships and collaboration allows us to create places that meet local needs and are sustainable.

In many cases the public sector is leading the way. Some authorities are already giving social value a heavy weighting in procurement, with Salford and Bristol among those placing it at the heart of Local Plans and policies.

However, the challenges for both public and private sectors is how to properly measure the impact development has in the community. Technology can play a pivotal role in solving this problem, providing a clear and consistent methodology for assessing social value.  

First Base is one of the early adopters of Social Value Portal, a technology platform that can quantify how interventions made on the ground can have a real long-term impact. Through this platform, initiatives to support jobs and improve skills, back local businesses, reduce crime, empower disadvantaged groups, protect the environment and promote health and wellbeing can all be expressed in monetary values. This means for every pound invested in a project, we can see the real economic impact on a community. Crucially, the portal is accessible to all, allowing local authorities and communities to see in real-time what long-term benefits a development project is producing.

As with all data platforms it is only as effective as the information that is input. Some challenges facing parts of a community will be invisible when looking at employment, crime or education data as the sample size is too small or the group is outside the local authority’s influence. That’s why engaging with local people and listening to their views remains vital for getting under the skin of a community and knowing what really makes it tick.  While technology is vital to creating a real accountability on social value, it is not the panacea – making a difference often comes down to building relationships and empathy face-to-face.

Creating places for people to enjoy and improving lives is what development should be all about. The modernisation of the planning system should not only expediate delivery but track how successful our industry is in achieving this core purpose.

Many aspects of the planning system remain opaque and more transparency is required to restore public trust. We should embrace technology and data to shine a light on the many benefits it can bring.

Liam Ronan-Chlond is stakeholder and external relations manager at First Base

To further raise the profile of social value, First Base are working with the Social Value Portal on a UK Green Building Council task group, alongside fellow industry partners, to re-define social value so that future opportunities are better realised across the sector.

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