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Generating social value from Scottish infrastructure projects - WSP

Rachel McEvan, Associate Director at WSP, and Kenny Paxton, Principal Geotechnical Engineer at Atkins discuss how to make the most of opportunities for creating social value.

Why do you think social value is important?


During my engineering career I've always taken pride in how people and technology come together to create sustainable solutions that improve society. To date this has often been at the construction stage. With the increased emphasis on social value, I'm looking forward to embedding it from the outset on more projects.

Rachel That long-term approach to social value is important: it’s about things like skills, jobs and education. Land is increasingly scarce, so when we use land for a piece of infrastructure it’s important to maximise the social value from the project. How have you been able to embed social value on a project?

Rachel For the dualling of the A9 road between Perth and Inverness, we are focussing effort on social value, with a large group of people engaged on the team drilling down into sustainability, employment, wellbeing and cultural heritage so we could capture a broad range of opportunities and ideas in a coordinated way. I’ve been particularly involved in the connectivity aspect – developing opportunities for future procurements to promote more active travel routes, creating cycling and walking hubs with shelters and local interpretation, and improving non-motorised user safety.

Kenny As part of the Glasgow City Deal, we’re working with Glasgow City Council on the remediation of quay walls along the Clyde to unlock development and connectivity. We’ve been able to embed social value from the outset of the project, developing events to engage SMEs and collaborating with ground investigation contractor Structural Soils to organise school visits to the drilling sites and labs analysing the soils. Similarly, on the A9 project as part of Academy9 we organised STEM activities where children could simulate building and operating the road. What unique aspects of Scottish communities must social value strategies consider?

Kenny Scotland is fantastic nation with an intrinsic belief in equality; its challenges are geographic. Scotland has a population density of just 70 people per square kilometre, making it the most sparsely populated nation in the UK. Yet 70% of its 5 million inhabitants live in the Central Belt. Any social value strategy needs to reflect that distribution, with interventions meeting the needs of communities and helping build villages and towns for future. What’s right for a smaller community like Campbeltown will be very different from what’s right for Glasgow.

Rachel It’s also about facilitating – helping communities to deliver social value themselves by building on their existing rich culture and history. For example, on the islands of Mull and Coll, some of my colleagues have been working with our client to collect and preserve oral social history from the community in an accessible format. How do you ensure that project teams, partners, clients and the supply chain all work together to deliver social value?

Rachel Starting early is the real key – engaging with the whole team and connecting them with a common goal that everyone works towards. This can help reinforce the importance of social value through the procurement process and ensure that contractors understand the project’s aspirations and that benefits are realised in the short, medium and long term with a final legacy for communities and users.

Kenny Above all, the Government and public sector clients have to invest in projects that have potential for creating and maximising social value. This could mean embracing alternative solutions such as modular and offsite construction, which support skilled jobs at factories in areas beyond the construction site. And it could involve bringing projects together to create a larger impact as part of a big programme rather than tackling them individually. How would you challenge teams to ensure what they're delivering is true social value rather than just corporate social responsibility (CSR)?

Rachel We need to devise solutions with a true understanding of the community at hand. Social value applies differently to each project and each community and developing an understanding of the key areas of improvement is the main way we can unlock social value. Covid has highlighted the need to go beyond CSR. The pandemic has had a big impact on Scotland, highlighting issues such as digital poverty with many people unable to access online services. Although donating laptops and other devices to families in deprived areas who are home-schooling children is a worthy thing for businesses to do, it’s only a sticking plaster. National and local government and industry need to commit to ensuring projects help tackle challenges like this in the long term.

Kenny I think we need to celebrate people’s success in creating social value, to show teams just what’s possible. Ultimately, though, to ensure we’re not paying lip service, social value needs to become a key performance indicator for the industry. We record monetary profit and loss, so why not social value? How can you create lasting social value to meet the changing needs of communities and those of future generations?

Rachel Whatever we do now in public sector procurement must have a lasting effect. That should be the real test, particularly in the wake of Covid-19. Does a project help provide long-term support for industries that have been badly affected, such as retail and hospitality? Does it provide more certainty and economic opportunity for future generations? Embedding future-ready thinking into social value development across all our projects is critical, looking to the future trends and impacts that can affect designs and the end-users who benefit from them in the long-term.

Kenny Covid-19 will have a massive impact, but the fact that it has revealed such disparity in our society gives us the opportunity to address the issue. Doing so will require a concerted effort from interested parties and industry, like that undertaken for the London 2012, where the Olympics was used as a catalyst to regenerate a neglected quarter of the city, illustrating the true benefits of social value over ten years later. It’s a big challenge, but it’s something we have to do for the sake of future generations.

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