The crossroads where local communities and construction meet is the domain of CSR and multi-stakeholder engagement. Historically, companies in the building sector have mostly been seen as waiting at the lights on site, then moving on at project completion. Given the current economic drivers, this approach must change. What can Construction do to make a real difference to communities and leave a positive legacy? In return, what is in it for the industry?
Whilst a building project is on site, short-term benefits to the neighbouring community, in terms of spikes in local employment and trade, are visible and measurable. However, for these to be considered sustainable and described as investment, rather than just a temporary cash injection, there needs to be a positive ongoing legacy that contributes to a transformative and regenerative process. It seems a big ask, but how can Construction make a difference that lasts?
The answer is remarkably simple: Jobs. Jobs and skills are the ticket to a better life for many marginalised by mainstream society, such as the long-term unemployed, homeless and vulnerable, ex-offenders, plus school-leavers and young persons without experience.
Construction companies and their supply chains, as vocational training providers and employers of apprentices in trades such as carpentry, bricklaying, painting and decorating, are in an almost unique position to support and promote sustainable employment amongst exactly those groups in greatest need. Delivery is also often targeted precisely where demand is most acute, as much construction activity takes place on sites in urban areas, within inner-city wards, amongst disadvantaged communities.
Given this context, potential benefits to the local economy are multiple: Employment and upskilling opportunities for individuals; subcontractor and supplier work for SMEs; plus, a boost in trade and spend, both directly around the site and indirectly as a knock-on effect of associated income growth.
An essential feature of community engagement and investment is that, by definition, it cannot be undertaken alone. Companies typically pursue partnerships with non-profit organisations and government agencies, third-sector, community, charitable and voluntary groups to provide opportunities for people and places. Partners range from those directly in employment and training fields, such as JobcentrePlus and ConstructionSkills, through national initiatives including Business in the Community, The Prince’s Trust and Big Lottery Fund, to local authorities, schools and colleges.
A local, diverse supply chain supports equality of opportunity and protection of human rights, making construction companies potential candidates for sign-up to the Social Mobility Business Compact launched by the government last December. A ripple effect of success for local job and training candidates also helps raise aspirations in communities and schools, enhancing public perception of the building industry as a whole.
Often under the umbrella of a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy, individual companies are already doing many good things in neighbourhoods up and down the country. Return on Investment (RoI) is not always easy to calculate, however, as metrics for social sustainability are typically less well understood and used than those for measurement of environmental impacts, either positive or negative.
Whilst donation of goods and provision of in-kind services, employee time, volunteering, fundraising, charitable giving and support are all welcome benefits to communities, the win-win opportunity for construction and communities in connection with jobs and skills appears of a different order and significance at present. The potential RoI is clear.
Whilst the national economy continues to struggle, the latest government surveys and statistics for the construction sector make for particularly grim reading. Even with the Green Deal arriving on the scene, the total number of UK workforce jobs in the industry has fallen below two million.
Construction needs growth, communities need growth – the two need each other now perhaps more than ever. For social sustainability, it is time for Construction to move beyond a mindset that targets mere compliance and to get creative with opportunities for community engagement and self-promotion.
No industry is better placed than Construction to fire up engines for growth at local level and to create micro-economies within communities. The job is vital, for all concerned.