Beyond CSR: Social value and the built environment – By Sara Cameron

If you stop and think about it, the impact that the built environment has upon society is immense: the built environment that we create influences both the physical and psychological well-being of the people who live in and interact with it, from birth to death. Developing and maintaining an attitude of positive social responsibility is an industry imperative, it acts in the public advantage and put simply, it is the right thing to do.

I am a surveyor in the public sector. But I trained as a commercial property surveyor – working for institutional investors and large national portfolios, putting financial outcomes above other potential benefits. However, over the past 11 years or so I have worked managing property portfolios in the public sector. Not an easy thing to do in an era of austerity.

Whilst being an engaged and active RICS member, I am also an active member of the Association of Chief Estates Surveyors and Property Managers in the Public Sector. The 2019 ACES national conference “improving lives through property” showcased what we, as surveyors in the public sector do in terms of social value.  Using public money for public good.  Making profit for purpose.

We talked place, data, leadership, health, people, partnerships, circular economy, ethics. I spoke on both days of the conference – on the people panel and then repeating a previous presentation I’d given to the ACES East of England branch around professional ethics.

Our profession is all about people and the impact that our use of land, resources and the built environment has on us and the planet as a whole.

Google ‘social value’ and you return a multitude of search results. Just this week, the #tag in my twitter timeline have featured @RICSnews showcasing #WBEF webinar for the #ValuethePlanet campaign, Sir Robert McAlpine showcasing their sustainability strategy and net zero plans, the work of social enterprises which span the #SDGs, @SE_Mark, @placesforpeople, ISO20400, #peopleplaceplanet, and Social Value UK (, I could go on.

What is Social Value?

In the public sector we are required to consider how the services we commission might improve the social and environmental well-being of the areas and residents we work for. 

We have to walk the talk and not just tick boxes.

Social Value asks the question: “If £1 is spent on the delivery of services, can that same £1 be used, to also produce a wider benefit to the community?”

See Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012

The Act was established to rethink the way the public sector procures services and to ensure commissioners consider more than the functional, operational whilst taking into account economic, social and environmental well-being.

Passed during the a period of financial restraint, where reducing costs and improving efficiencies created intense pressure, social value hasn’t always had the visibility it has now.

Beyond social impact to social value

Social impact can be described as simplifying problems – using tools, frameworks and mechanisms to capture and demonstrate impact. It’s cause and effect, looking at specific activities and outcomes, and is therefore narrow in its definitions and controlled data use.

Social value embraces the complexity of the diverse communities, environments that we live, work and play in. It is about the cumulative, holistic differences to society as a whole, the systemic, network effects rather than isolated wins.  It’s a growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed mindset.  Its about context, the power of the narrative giving a richer, deeper understanding of what and why.

Its so heartening to be part of a profession that gets it. To read RICS President Tim Neal write about the human element of what we do:

It is within our gift to create sustainable and dynamic cities and communities, finance their construction, connect them to public services, and efficiently manage their built assets.

(RICS, 2019)

To seeing President Elect, Kath Fontana, take part in Dr Alexia Nalewiak’s #pmchat on social value really highlight that we are all in this together.

Want to know more?

The RICS #valuetheplanet campaign promoting the implementation of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure our professions commitment to delivering social impact through responsible and sustainable practices – it is possibly the greatest opportunity to highlight our public interest responsibility in offering solutions to society’s most challenging issues. We all have to act now– our use of land, resources and the built environment must be about improving lives, leaving a legacy, making profit for purpose – it is what surveying should be.

(RICS, 2019)
(RICS, 2019)

If you are keen to learn even more, I would also recommend reading the UK Green Building Council’s ‘Social Value in new Development’ which is an excellent introduction:

(UKGBC, 2018)
(UKGBC, 2018)

Final thought:

With 65% all of District, County, Metropolitan and Unitary authorities having declared a climate emergency already, it is clear that 2019 was the year of climate activism and we now have to focus our efforts on 2020 being the year of climate action, putting social value at the heart of all of our decisions.

It is the right thing to do.

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