16 January 2020

Social Value: revealing invisible worth

Planners need no convincing of the links between the built environment and its potential to positively influence society. Whilst the benefits to society of well-designed places are widely understood, they are seldom measured. What if the extent of this impact could be assessed?

There is increasing recognition amongst local authorities, investors and developers that we need better ways to measure and account for the social value that results from development. In this article Ailish Ryan and Martyn Jenkins of WSP | Indigo shine a light on what we mean by social value, the benefits and difficulties arising when assessing it and, crucially, how a better understanding of social value can help make a compelling case for development.

What is social value?

Social value is not simply a way of measuring the impact of an activity on people but rather, a holistic method for assessing works or services and the worth that they generate to society overall. Social value seeks to measure initiatives implemented to promote social, environmental and economic sustainability, translating this assessment into relative monetary terms in order to demonstrate the true value of a development.

Recognition has been growing…

While the concept of social value is not new, awareness and appreciation has come into greater prominence following the enactment of the Social Value Act in 2013. The Act, which is used in the procurement of public services, requires social value to be evaluated for major government procurements.

In its current format, the Act fails to explicitly incorporate considerations of town planning. Despite this, the growing enlightenment of local authorities to the benefits of social value has resulted in a shift in thinking to its application beyond the procurement of public services.

This change in perspective extends to developers who are recognising the value that responsible business activities can bring back to their organisation, thereby mutually reinforcing the need for strong social, economic and environmental consideration. Indeed, developments are now having to be both financially beneficial to the investor, as well as generating long term societal benefit for those who live, work and experience the development.

The relevance of social value to the built environment sector is also reinforced by the 2018 Civil Society Strategy which recognises that social value flows from communities that have strong connections between people along with robust financial, physical and natural resources. The potential of the planning system to influence the spaces and places required to generate this flow should not be underestimated. 

The challenge

Whilst the benefits of assessing the social value of a development are clear, undertaking such analysis is not entirely straightforward.

The difficulties lie in quantifying an impact which does not necessarily have a monetary value or an explicit market price. While there is a well-defined and recognised methodology for quantifying the economic impact of developments (e.g. employment or expenditure effects), there is no common methodology for measuring the social impact of projects. For instance, attempting to quantify the impact of a new community centre on the local population’s health.

Moreover, there is a lack of consistency in approach and statutory guidance on how such analysis should be undertaken, further muddying the waters. While significant work has been undertaken by organisations such as the Social Value Portal, HACT, and the UK Green Building Council to develop mechanisms and tools that demonstrate and quantify the social value of a development, the challenge now lies in the application of these.

To reach its potential, social value needs consistent consideration. Advocacy of social value will mean more schemes are assessed, helping to benchmark and subsequently drive improvements in this space, ultimately delivering better schemes which generate greater value to communities.

Not just another sustainable buzz-word

Despite the challenges outlined, undertaking a social value assessment is beneficial in appreciating what is already being implemented by projects. By not calculating social value, millions of pounds worth of value is currently going unmeasured.

One example of this is the improvements to building fabric for energy efficiency. While commonplace, the long-term value of implementation to society is not actively captured or realised, meaning that an articulation of wider benefits is not accounted for.

Understanding social value can also aid in recognising the materiality of initiatives by promoting a standardised approach for measurement. Consequently, areas of concern can be readily identified, and efforts can be streamlined accordingly. This ultimately assists local authorities in recognising the impacts of developments on their residents, assisting governments in their ability to make positive impacts within the wider community.


Measuring social value is an inherently difficult task with even the most progressive organisations in the built environment industry feeling like they are at the beginning of their social value journeys. Despite this, the articulation of the social value of a scheme represents a source of significant untapped potential in demonstrating the positive and far-reaching impacts of new development. Revealing this previously invisible worth will undoubtedly continue to be a valuable exercise for local authorities, investors and developers for many years to come.