The key to the success of a construction business – whether a housebuilder, consultancy, project manager or contractor – is how it engages with local communities and becomes a force for good, says Kelly Sowden, regional social value and stakeholder manager at Sisk

Kelly Sowden

Kelly Sowden is regional social value and stakeholder manager at Sisk

Corporate social responsibility has been a cornerstone of businesses operating in the construction sector for years, but social value is now the outcome of efforts to quantify how a company is performing against its values, looking after its employees and its wider social, environmental and economic effects.

It is important that strategies and plans are developed to make sure construction companies are leaving a positive legacy in the communities where they work, at all stages of scheme delivery, from bid writing to practical completion. A lot of time and effort should be invested in identifying those  opportunities so, as an industry, we not only provide new infrastructure and buildings, but ensure our impact on the ground is felt positively, locally, for years to come.

Challenging perceptions of social value

One significant challenge is the general lack of understanding of what social value is. There is a perception that it only involves cash donations to support community initiatives but, while there may be some scope for businesses to donate to or sponsor community activities, the focus should really be on helping people to develop new skills to enable them to improve their lives.

Social value is quantifiable – every social value interaction we take part in can generate a monetary value, based on the impact on society of helping someone achieve a new skill or gain employment. For example, teaching someone a new skill means they are more likely to find employment and not claim benefits.

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One example of this is a project that Sisk undertook under the YorCivils Framework in Leeds which generated more than £20m in social value. Over three years, we spent more than 300 hours engaging with local schools and colleges, employed more than 100 people who had a Leeds postcode, including 10 apprentice positions, raised over £22,000 for local charities, and spent over £9.5m with local businesses.

Bridging the skills gap

Corporate social responsibility has been a term used by socially aware companies for years, but real, tangible activity and quantifying success is encompassed by social value. This covers several areas including volunteering, sponsorship, donations in kind, and skills and employment.

It is also important for the future of the industry that contractors engage with local schools, colleges and universities as part of their social value strategies, with the aim of bridging the skills gaps that are widening, not just across the construction industry, but other labour-intensive industries across the economy.

Social value initiatives could include raising awareness about careers in construction by offering workshops to help students gain new skills, or helping  them with their CVs, conducting mock interviews or offering work experience opportunities.

>> Also read: Let’s give social impact the attention it deserves in commercial schemes

To fulfil social value commitments, it is seen more often that contractors are employing local people on projects, focusing on harder to reach and underrepresented groups, such as ex-offenders, NEETS (not in education, employment, or training) or former members of the armed forces.

There is also a well-documented need for the industry to focus on women and girls and encourage them to pursue careers that might traditionally be associated with men.

Community engagement benefits two-fold

The industry’s collective duty to improve the communities where we work is not only enshrined in law but is a great way of boosting the industry’s image and encouraging people to consider the career opportunities available. It is important that construction teams engage with communities at an early stage of scheme delivery so these opportunities can really be promoted.

Community and stakeholder liaison goes hand in hand with social value, as many opportunities arise from conversations with key stakeholders or community members. At the first point of contact, stakeholder professionals will often receive requests for help via their community contacts. They are also able to identify opportunities and advocate for communities.

There is a real responsibility on the industry as home and community builders to enhance the lives of local people and it is more important than ever that social value is not treated as a box-ticking exercise but as a tangible experience for many

Social value and stakeholder engagement is increasingly important as clients realise that strong community relationships are the key to successful projects. Social value also supports many local authorities’ commitment to “wealth sharing” or “inclusive growth”.

These strategies detail the most deprived areas in respective towns with a recommendation that contractors focus attention in these areas. I believe more businesses are now recognising the need to give back to the communities where they work meaning social value will become a phrase more people will understand in the future.

The best ways to engage are to bring the message to the audience, at a time and location that suits them. Collectively we are breaking away from the traditional model of holding one event in a church hall and we look at taking our messages to community groups, shopping centres and hosting events at different times of the day.

The onus should not be on communities to only use online platforms to find out about our work, and often the most vulnerable in our society, who might be most impacted by our work, don’t have access to information online.

Looking ahead

There is a real responsibility on the industry as home and community builders to enhance the lives of local people and it is more important than ever that social value is not treated as a box-ticking exercise but as a tangible experience for many. Effective social value must be at the heart of planning projects to ensure their long-term success. The industry really has opportunity at its core, so the potential on offer is enormous, and it is clear that social value and good stakeholder engagement will have an increasingly large part to play.