Social value more important than ever for construction and society

Second annual Infrastructure Intelligence social value conference proves great success.

Embedding social value and being able to demonstrate and measure it on projects are becoming ever more crucial for all those working in the construction and infrastructure sector. That was a key conclusion from the Infrastructure Intelligence Levelling up and Social Value conference, delivered in association with communications and public affairs specialists BECG, which took place online on Friday 13 May 2022.

Hundreds of industry professionals signed up to attend the event which explored what social value means in practice in a sector that is often seen as leading the way in demonstrating the social benefit of its work.

Highlighting the three Ps of planet, policy and power

Keynote speaker Jeremy Galpin, group social value consultancy lead at Costain, opened the event with an insightful overview of the current social value landscape.

Setting the context of what he described as the three P’s – planet, policy and power - he said: “Many of the challenges the planet faces are not good. And they’re not helped by a distortion of truth by those in power. The good news is these challenges can be successfully tackled. We have seen very significant shifts in policy towards sustainable finance and investment.

“Politics is different from policy. Policy is long-term, but politics changes very quickly. But levelling up is now very much beginning to be embedded in policy. We all have a responsibility to respond to injustices, and people across the political divides who want to address social injustice all agree that we need to level up. Levelling up is about improving people’s lives. And, as an industry, we have a fantastic opportunity to meet the challenges faced by our planet.”

Setting the scene and assessing the social value landscape

Galpin’s address was followed by two panel discussions, the first of which was themed around assessing the current social value landscape, which included discussions about procurement trends, government and client drivers for social value, bidding best practice and supply chain potential.

Hannah Vickers, chief of staff at Mace, spoke about the Construction Playbook and how this had affected social value. She said: “The Construction Playbook has the framework to deliver social value, but we need to step up to articulate the benefits of what can be delivered. We should also show how we go above and beyond in terms of leaving long-term legacies and helping people develop careers.

“As part of that, I’d urge people and business to focus on things that have the most long-term impact rather than focussing on short term camera friendly one-off photo opportunities. Focus on long term benefits and real meaningful impact.”

Click here to watch a recording of the Levelling up and Social Value conference.

Sheryl Moore, group social sustainability manager at Kier, agreed with Vickers and said: “We should be working with communities and clients, and looking at the long-term benefits and social sustainability of projects.”

Sarah Daly, associate director, sustainability at Turner & Townsend, said: “We can see the importance of fully integrating everything into social value, including net zero, social and economic inclusion and sustainability. We’ve all got to work together to make progress.”

Peter McDermott, professor of construction procurement at the University of Salford, said: “Over the last ten years, there’s been a real shifting of the dial to embed social value into public policy. We can get stuck in the language and the jargon, but the same need for social value and economic improvement remains the same across the globe.”

Stephen Leo, director at Social Value Solutions and Plena Consulting, spoke about how to use social value to win bids and tenders. He said: “Bidding can be quite daunting. People need to understand how to put their best foot forward on this. Social value is not free, but it needs to be sustainable and proportionate to what is being delivered. Avoid generic solutions and address real challenges, whether that’s on a local, regional or national basis. Look at the impact that social value can create and make it real.”

The final speaker in the first panel session, Sean Keyes, managing director at Sutcliffe, gave an SME perspective on social value. He said: “SMEs undertake a bigger role on social value per capita than the much bigger companies. It’s an absolute given to incorporate social value into everything we do. Engineering as an industry can give huge opportunities to help young people from all backgrounds develop fantastic careers – and we’re very well placed to ensure social value makes a real difference in society.”

Demonstrating lasting practical impact on the ground

A second panel session, entitled “Demonstrating and measuring social value - going beyond the numbers and highlighting success” explored the latest best practice in delivering social value in the construction sector and elsewhere and also looked at how the sector needs to move beyond numbers and start telling a story about the value it delivers.

Vicky Hutchinson, environment practice director, infrastructure UK & Europe at Atkins, highlighted mental health and said: “We’re currently supporting local clubs in a number of local communities and encouraging people to open up about mental health. That also helps tackle economic and social inequality – providing 1-2-1 coaching for young people from deprived backgrounds – and increasing people’s aspirations and boosting confidence.”

Emily King, global technology leader, social value advisory at Jacobs, said: “Social value and economic opportunity is closely linked. Going beyond the numbers, strategic planning that embeds social value and levelling up is vital for any business case.”

Neil Macdonald, chief executive of Thrive, said that behavioural changes were needed to go beyond the numbers in measuring social value. He said: “Social value can be a very powerful message to capture and enhance a company’s ethos when it goes beyond the numbers. But looking across the sector there’s been a culture of compliance, where people just do the minimum required. There needs to be a move away from a compliance culture and instead buy into a culture that tells a positive story.”

Barton Willmore partner Lucy Wood, said: “People and communities are at the heart of social value, so integrating social, economic and environmental aspects into social value to improve people’s lives is vital to tackle the challenges of our times.”

Rob Wolfe, managing director at CHY Consultancy, said: “Construction is the leading industry involved in driving forward social value. Social value should benefit deprived communities and it’s important to measure both quantitative and qualitative data to measure the value we are creating. That shouldn’t always mean monetisation, we should make value-based decisions and we need to feel confident in the value that we’re sharing. The industry is at a crossroads in the measurement of social value. There’s a risk of being driven by monetisation rather than the value we’re giving within communities. We need to capture the real value were creating, not just the PR led initiatives.”

Verity Barr, director at BECG, said: “There’s a wealth of good work being done across the sector, but we need to communicate that effectively and honestly. The pandemic really brought social injustice to the forefront and people became much more aware of supporting local communities where they live and work. We need to focus on positive human outcomes and driving change, because there’s a huge value in promoting our sector and attracting new people to come and work with us.” 

Click here to watch a recording of the Levelling up and Social Value conference.

Kerry Scott, global lead for social outcomes at Mott MacDonald, said: “There’s been a significant increase in demand from clients for social value. There’s a strong direction of travel within the industry and we’ve used our passion to move this along. An essential part of that is working with local people and communities to find out what’s important to them, rather than working generically. Finding out what actually counts. We have to go beyond the numbers and have a transformative effect in the communities we work in.”

Final panellist, Kat Brown, social impact and ESG manager at Bruntwood, said: “There’s been a real change of pace around social value. Considering social value at the earliest stages of any project and considering local needs should be at the forefront of any project. Social value should be at the heart of what we do, so much so that we shouldn’t need to have these same discussions in ten years’ time.”

Construction transforms people’s lives

Summing up the conference, Peter McDermott, professor of construction procurement at the University of Salford, said: “What’s been demonstrated here is that social value is going to be embedded in what we do. We need to design and plan for social value, and we can’t do that by lowest price bidding. What an exciting challenge the industry has here.”

Closing the event, outgoing Infrastructure Intelligence editor, Andy Walker, said that by their contributions the speakers had shown what a crucial issue social value was for the entire construction and infrastructure sector. “This issue is more important than ever and all those working in our sector need to be acutely aware of the importance of social value and how to demonstrate the positive and often transformational effect that construction can and does have on people’s lives,” he said. 

“We are literally an industry that makes a real and lasting difference to communities up and down the country and we should never shy of shouting this from the rooftops, as this is crucial in promoting the industry itself to a wider audience and to attracting new people to want to work within it,” said Walker.

Click here to watch a recording of the Levelling up and Social Value conference.

The Infrastructure Intelligence Live series of events is organised in association with our strategic partner, BECG

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