The question of how to increase the social value of projects and to swing the priority back from ultimate economic gain towards a more balanced approach is a very difficult one and at times a fruitless endeavour.
Since we have lost the affordable homes criteria the situation has got far worse. New ‘laws’ and schemes seek to address the void but are clearly inadequate and the system falls massively short on providing good integrated urban landscape. Aside from affordable housing we are clearly missing the adequate provision of valuable community assets. The provision of community assets has by and large in the past been provided by local councils and authorities but with the stripping of council assets, budgets and morale, we seem to be losing more and more of the frontline assets that communities really need.
So what is a community asset and why do we need them?
Community assets fundamentally are land and buildings owned or managed by community organisations. These assets cover a wide spectrum and include: town halls, community centres, sports facilities, affordable housing and libraries while also encompassing services such as: drug addiction clinics, homeless shelters and youth clubs. These are spaces owned by the community to provide community services; with the community the main beneficiary. However in the eyes of the council and developers it appears that ‘community assets’ are now: boutique shops, cafes, restaurants, high street stores and copious office spaces, while we shouldn’t forget the abundance of carparks springing up around the city.
This for me is a result of the imbalance between social value and economic value that is systemic in British society and especially in large scale urban developments.
I would highlight that I do not deny that we need more housing, more workspaces; the growth of our cities is inevitable and must be embraced, but my concern is that without a more balanced approach, our cities will fail and the future occupants will not have the quality of life they deserve.
‘Community assets’ knit spaces, people and cities together, they are a fundamental part of the urban fabric and we must endeavour to increase these vital assets.
How do we stop developers and those who grant the schemes from building with little regard to the urban fabric and aiming for maximum profit?
I propose a possible solution that for all new schemes, 20% of the total build must create social value. I hear you say, but how do we measure social value? I see this 20% being provided in two distinct ways:
That the developer must provide space (20% of overall build) to community assets; assets defined by the local council.Providing direct funding for a fixed term to a local community asset i.e. pay 50% for 6 years of the local library staff budget.
Developers can offset their losses through tax breaks or a loosening of certain planning laws. Allowing developers to offset in these direct ways means local communities are directly affected and forces schemes to properly engage with the area. This of course would require far tighter and more comprehensive ‘strategic framework’s’ or a ‘community asset framework’, created with the full engagement of the local community. These frameworks would set the guidelines for these 20% social value gains based on a balance of: social value, local desires and economic requirements. It would thus guarantee the communities were receiving what was needed, whilst also having an element of control over how these assets are allocated.
I believe this method has the potential to benefit both parties. It would also move the responsibility of the council to provide these assets, to a more advisory role, helping reduce costs on already broke councils.
I feel it is important that we look at alternative ways to fund and develop our cities and their communities: to reduce the burden on tax payers whilst allowing the inhabitants of the city input into how their communities are comprised. We must also advocate for a strong council, who can act on these ideas and bring about change.