Productivity improvement is the only real way to pay ourselves more, says WSP’s Barny Evans

Barny evans bw 2018

You hear variations of this uttered by economists, business people and government officials and it is true. It’s demonstrated by the fact that as our productivity gains have flattened since the recession, so has wage growth. So, what can we do?

WSP are already very active in the transport sector. A sector which is commonly associated with productivity, whether that is HS2, airport expansions or improving walking and cycling facilities. These are commonly referred to in terms of Benefit Cost Ratios (BCRs), which are essentially analysing the economic gain per unit of investment.

There is far less mention of focus in the property and development sector. Very careful analysis of return on investment is undertaken, but rarely is there analysis of the overall productivity benefit of a development in terms of what could deliver greatest economic benefit in a given area. Or in other words, what would enable the greatest increase in long term GDP in that space? 

Launched at the end of October, the WSP report, ‘Productive Places’, seeks to address exactly this.

The report explores how the developments we work in can lock-in productivity to support the UK and our economy. It requires a combination of local authorities, developers and consultants, but it also requires a change in perspective as to how we approach policy, analysis and projects.

A productive place is somewhere people can undertake daily tasks easily on-site, where space is used optimally and where being active and social is implicit. It is where workplaces enable people to be most productive, where homes are comfortable with quiet, healthy and outdoor spaces encouraging us to be there and make us think. They are where we meet, do business, make friends and argue. It is somewhere you can start a business or go for a stroll, meet for a beer to discuss how to change the world or even just the latest sporting events. They are spaces that are great now but can adapt for the future.

Often, we are still getting this wrong in our cities and towns. We are sometimes required to put solar power on roofs in city centres when that space could be better used as a collaboration space. We have urban areas where social venues and small retail outlets haven’t been provided so people drive for short journeys. And we still have cities full of 10m2 car parking spaces but not enough housing.

Whilst the pure GDP (or national wealth) sense of economic productivity is most important, productive places offer non-economic benefits too. When we are more active, then generally I will be healthier and happier. If we feel safe and it is comfortable to be outside where we live then we will be happier and meet more people. Ultimately, we will have a more productive life.

A section of the report focuses on the engagement and delivery which is perhaps the most important. How can we bring finance, policy and people together for the long-term productivity of our places, and how can we seek input from partners, clients, competitors and the public?

We don’t yet have all the answers and our paper is intended to start a conversation about how our places can increase productivity in the economic and the personal sense. It is probably the most important conversation we can have right now.

Barny Evans, head of energy, waste and sustainable places at WSP