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Societal value of infrastructure

Infrastructure is critical to the physical and economic growth of a society. In the UK, infrastructure development has historically focused on demonstrating economic value and, to a lesser degree, environmental value. But there are now a number of drivers for infrastructure planners and developers to define the social value of infrastructure projects. UK legislation now requires the articulation of social value for public services contracts.

Social value is intangible and difficult to quantify, articulate and demonstrate. This research project, carried out at the Centre for Sustainable Development at the University of Cambridge, developed our understanding of how social value can be interpreted and discussed. The research team used flood alleviation infrastructure to frame the research, taking three flood alleviation schemes in the UK as the basis of the study. The team conducted interviews with stakeholders in the local community, local planning authority, Environment Agency, and the design team and contractors. These interviews were analysed to reveal the varied perceptions of the social value generated by the schemes. A PhD was carried out at the University of Cambridge examining how the social value of three flood alleviation schemes was interpreted and discussed by the local communities impacted and the industry teams responsible for the development. In parallel to the PhD, internal Arup research was conducted to investigate how the knowledge gained from the academic sphere could be transferred and made applicable to the wider infrastructure industry continually mapping how Arup could proceed with this agenda and what clients required.

Social value is not well understood by either local communities or those working to design, deliver, and construct flood alleviation schemes.

There is a positive correlation between the acceptance of a scheme by the local community and the level of engagement and consultation throughout its design and construction.

When articulated by both local communities and those working on flood alleviation schemes, social value is most associated with the concept of benefits. Therefore, community consultation has the ability to explicitly define the benefits and detriments for both the host and source community or communities.

The power relationships present between the host and source communities and those that design, deliver, and construct infrastructure schemes determine the level of acceptance of the scheme. Different power relationships will produce different outcomes.

Community consultation was perceived by a number of participants as an exercise of informing rather than consulting. Early consultation can identify local context specific issues. By not consulting early in the scheme, local knowledge was not utilised fully, sometimes at the expense of the success of the scheme.

The focus of the research was flood alleviation infrastructure, but the conclusions and recommendations drawn from the research are relevant to the wider infrastructure sector. By understanding and quantifying social values, Arup can inform decision-making and can assist clients who are bidding for funding for projects with a social value agenda. A number of recommendations were drawn from the research that can be applied to infrastructure projects.

Firstly, source communities and host communities (those that receive the service and those that are affected by the physical infrastructure) should be identified early in the design stages of a project. These communities should be considered separately in terms of impact, benefits and detriment.

Secondly, source and host communities should be engaged early in the project to understand the local context, and the concerns and requirements of the community.

Thirdly, the power relationships that exist with the local community are of great importance.

The research shows that if the local communities are involved in a scheme and well informed about it, they are more likely to accept the project.

The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 requires the articulation of social value for new infrastructure projects in the UK. Meanwhile society, as taxpayer and consequently as funder of large economic infrastructure projects, is also demanding an explanation of the wider value gained from such projects. This has resulted in a drive in the construction industry to articulate the social value of its projects.

By developing our understanding of social value, we can better inform decision-making on infrastructure projects and add value to the work we do for communities, clients and contractors. The subjective and complex nature of social value means many are still trying to understand what is meant by social value. This research has enabled Arup to understand what it means in specific contexts, how it is constructed, and the factors that are influential on its construction.  For each project the social value can be understood from the specific position of the relevant communities and not in a generic ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.