Highways infrastructure has the capability to make a positive difference to people’s everyday lives. We can unlock this potential by investing in projects which will deliver long-term social benefits to communities, not just the short-term economic benefits we can monetise, writes Kerry Scott, Mott MacDonald’s global practice leader for social outcomes.
A road is much more than just a road, much more than just a way to get from A to B.
It can be the avenue to a new career, by improving access to education.
It can be the link to a better quality of life, by bringing services and amenities within easy reach of people’s homes.
And it can be the expressway to regeneration, by connecting communities to jobs, investment and economic opportunity.
These social outcomes highlight how transport infrastructure can serve society by addressing inequality, creating better places to live, and driving inclusive growth.
Too often we lose sight of this interdependency between infrastructure and society when planning and designing new infrastructure.
A major reason for this is that long-since established methods used to determine the value of projects and inform investment decisions rely heavily on quantitative data.
The business case for a scheme tends largely to be based on the millions of pounds of gross value added it will generate.
Yet, headline figures like these just measure the impacts on economic growth per se, not inclusive growth, not the real impacts on people and the lives they lead.
Gaining better insights from data
Delivery of positive, long-term social outcomes calls for a wider focus than the traditional monetised metrics. We need to look through a more inclusive lens.
The key is making investment decisions based on the capability of projects to deliver the benefits that really count, not just the ones we can count.
It demands that we examine how a scheme is going to address endemic issues, such as poverty and deprivation, and evaluate how its benefits will be distributed and experienced by different sections of society.
We can do this by using quantitative data differently, and by harnessing and gaining insight from a range of qualitative data sources.
There are various ways in which to assess aspects of inclusivity. Indices of multiple deprivation, skill levels, wealth disparities, environmental conditions, employment sector profiles and consultation findings are just some of the sources we can look to draw on.
We need to make better use of these and other data sets by developing new, systematic approaches to measuring the contribution of developments to inclusive growth.
Leaving a positive legacy
One way is to benchmark projects against fundamental social indicators to keep a clear focus on ways to deliver benefits for communities, not just on the technical solution needed to deliver the asset itself.
This is the approach we are taking at Mott MacDonald. We have created a social outcomes framework to guide us – and our clients – on how to design and deliver projects that will leave a positive legacy in terms of accessibility, inclusion, empowerment, resilience and wellbeing.
One of the framework’s indicators, for example, is access to essential community facilities. By combining demographics with network data, we can translate the social return of a new link road into how many people will have shorter, easier and less expensive journeys.
We can also break data down to understand how effects are experienced by different cohorts of the local population. Older people will have different priorities to younger people. Those on low incomes will have different needs to those who are more affluent. These variations must be taken into account in order for schemes to address underlying inequalities in society.
In this way, qualitative data can enhance optioneering and augment traditional cost-benefit analysis by assessing the extent to which local needs are being met.
Outcomes versus outputs
Existing methods, such as equality and environmental impact assessments, have a clear role in supporting the delivery of more inclusive outcomes.
Some components of existing appraisal tools – TAG, for example, the guidance used by the UK’s Department for Transport to assess projects and proposals – include analysis of wider social and economic impacts. These considerations, however, are often downgraded compared to the macro economic output benefits.
This means that a project’s ‘success’ is judged on the forecast short-term economic returns and the impacts we can monetise, rather than the long-term benefits an asset will provide throughout its operational life and the decades of service it will give to a community. What value would you put on that?
Holistic business cases
The infrastructure industry must be more ambitious. We must think more holistically and develop business cases that prioritise social, economic and environmental outcomes.
We need to step back in the project process and think about social inclusion far earlier. If we reach the point of contract delivery, then many opportunities have already been missed.
But it’s not a case of choosing social change over commercial success. When an asset is designed and developed in partnership with the community to meet their needs, it is likely to be more financially sustainable.
If we take a more inclusive and joined-up approach to infrastructure planning, the projects that can really make a positive difference to people’s lives will attract the investment needed to get off the ground.
By ensuring local people and users are always front and centre of project design and delivery, we will unlock the potential of infrastructure. We will be on the road to communities that are more sustainable, resilient and inclusive.
Kerry Scott will be one of the speakers at this year’s Highways UK. She will be contributing to a panel discussion on ‘What really counts? What metrics should we be using to determine the value of infrastructure investment?’ at 9am UK time on 6 November. You can watch it live by registering for a free virtual pass via this link.