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COVID-19: “I am of the view that measuring and highlighting the social impact of growth plans, Local Industrial Strategies and new developments is going to become even more important post-lockdown”


As we gradually move out of Covid-19 lockdown and get used to living in the ‘new norm’, for those working in economic development I think there are going to be significant opportunities to help shape the recovery. In particular, I am of the view that measuring and highlighting the social impact of growth plans, Local Industrial Strategies and developments is going to become even more important post-lockdown.

The move towards looking at social impact had already begun well before the pandemic started and I think one of the main impacts from an economic development perspective will be to speed up this move. In my role on the economics team at Pegasus Group I spend a lot of time making the case for new development, be it housing, commercial, mixed-use etc. This has typically involved focusing on the economic benefits delivered by schemes, including employment, economic output and business rates.

Economic benefits are going to remain important when we look at how to recover from the inevitable recession we are now faced with, especially with unemployment likely to rise as a result of the planned changes to the government’s furlough scheme from August. However, when you look at much of the data being reported by the likes of ONS since the pandemic started you will see that the social impacts of the crisis are getting a lot of attention. To give some of examples of what I mean by this, the ONS Opinions and Lifestyle Survey covering the period 14-17 May 2020 indicates that:

• 33% of people in employment in Great Britain were working entirely from home. The corresponding figure from the 2011 Census (for England and Wales only) was 5.4%. The 2021 Census would, in all likelihood, have shown there to be a significant rise in homeworking anyway, but an even bigger increase could be one of the long-term impacts of Covid-19.
• More than four in 10 adults (43%) said their wellbeing was affected by the pandemic.
• More than three in 10 adults (37%) said they were unable to exercise as normal.

In a separate piece of analysis by ONS (here) it was revealed that one in eight households (12%) in Great Britain has no access to a private or shared garden during the coronavirus lockdown.

So, what does all this mean for those of us in economic development? In the public sector, I think the whole concept of ‘placemaking’ will continue to grow in importance, especially the way in which towns and cities can help shape an area. As I write this blog, I have just signed up for a webinar on this very issue, so I hope to learn a lot more about the subject from people with far more experience of it than myself.

If you are working in private sector consultancy, you are still going to be making the case for (or against) new schemes, but I think there will be far more of a balance between highlighting the economic and social impacts of proposals.

I have worked on a number of projects over the last 12-18 months where this has already been the case, however I think we will see housebuilders, commercial developers etc increasingly needing to consider the social impact that their particular scheme can have on an area. Two examples immediately spring to mind:

1. Health Impact Assessments

Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) are increasingly being required by councils when schemes are above a certain threshold, such as number of dwellings or quantum of floorspace. A HIA is commonly defined as: “A combination of procedures, methods and tools by which a policy, programme or project may be judged as to its potential effects on the health of a population, and the distribution of those effects within the population”.

When you consider what will often need including in such an assessment, it becomes apparent that HIAs contain a lot of information on social impacts – especially when it comes to influences on wellbeing. For a housing scheme, a HIA will typically include details of:

• The range of homes being provided – an important consideration, given that people may need more space in the future if they are working from home more.

• Open space provision – parks/gardens, natural/semi-natural green space etc.

• Accessibility and community safety.

• Noise and air quality.

• Access to healthcare and education provision.

2. Community Employment Plans

A variety of names can be given to strategies that aim to capture the employment impacts of schemes within a local area, but a lot of the objectives are the same and these include:

• Engaging with schools and colleges to alert them to a new development and potential work experience opportunities.

• Providing apprenticeship opportunities, especially during the construction phase of a scheme.

• Maximising local procurement by sourcing locally where possible.

• Working with organisations such as Local Enterprise Partnerships and Jobcentre Plus to advertise job opportunities locally, and to target the long-term unemployment for new roles.

The major difficulty with social impact has always been how to assess it, however there are now a range of tools available for economic development professionals to use. This includes the National Themes, Outcomes and Measures (TOMs) Framework, which has already been discussed in an earlier IED member blog, and the Social Value Bank developed by the Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust.

As people become more familiar with social impact and its role in shaping economic development, it should become fully integrated in the design of schemes and also as part of the planning process. And returning to my opening point, as begin to move forward in the ‘new norm’, the social impact of economic development is going to become increasingly important.

Richard Cook is Director – Economics of Pegasus Group, a member of the Institute of Economic Development