Social Value and Archaeology

January 05, 2014

Social Value Act and Archaeology

a ramble through it's potential by @dapaton 


Outside of the world of Social Enterprise (of which BH are one) most people have not heard of the Social Value Act which was passed in 2012 but has yet to really kick off in any significant way; and,  like many legal changes, everyone concerned is holding their collective breath for a test case which defines what clout it actually has. In essence, the act means that companies who have been procured using public money must demonstrate their social and/or environmental impact, or rather it requires the public body with the purse strings to consider how they are able to improve the social impact of their public service contracts before they start the procurement process.

Specifically the Social Value Act states that public bodies must consider:

(a) how what is proposed to be procured might improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of the relevant area, and
(b) how, in conducting the process of procurement, it might act with a view to securing that improvement.

Crucially, social impact can weigh against cost, meaning that it's not necessarily the cheapest offer that should be chosen (relevant to the HLF discussion later!). A crude example of enforcing 'value' would be the demonstration of environmental care, apprenticeships, reducing anti-social behaviour, investment in local amenities etc before being given a social housing contract. This is in an ideal world however, and whilst it's still very early days, some have argued that the  wording of the act is somewhat non-committal, lacking in teeth and needing greater clarification in order to be effective.

So, what does this all mean for archaeology?

Well, potentially a lot given enough time.

First off, there are plenty of large archaeological firms who owe much of their income to public monies. Since 1990 over 90% of archaeological work in the UK has taken place within the commercial archaeological sector, mostly as part of the planning and development process (Fulford 2010, 33 as cited in L. Richardson forthcoming). They should now (in theory) be required to demonstrate the further benefits that would come from awarding them contracts above competitors which could involve education initiatives, pro-bono preservation or having a stronger community element to their work.

The SVA potentially creates an opportunity for smaller soically-focussed archaeologists to tender for contracts against the big guns on the assumption that they can demonstrate a stronger pound-for-pound social impact. To counter this, the big firms are going to have to raise their game in terms of justifying, and demonstrating their social impact.

This is the tip of the iceberg in reality though, as archaeological firms are small fish in a massive ocean of public funding, particularly around construction, public maintenance and energy firms which all have an impact both upon communities and the historic environment. HS2 alone is estimated to cost anywhere between £40bn and £80bn, which is a phenomenal amount of public spend that should have demonstrable secondary social benefits. It's because of these huge numbers that the heritage world should now be carefully examining new construction contracts dished out of the public purse, as there is strong cause for arguing large companies could be investing time and money in to heritage projects in order to increase the social and environmental well-being of the communities they are working in and thus demonstrate their own social value.

This next 12 months is likely to see a few very public challenges to procurement, which will be led from the front by the UK's growing Social Enterprise sector. As someone who was fortunate enough to have been invited on the 2013 School of Social Entrepreneurs and a member of the Social Enterprise Network, I've been privy to a number of new initiatives that demonstrate that social enterprises are being taken seriously in the attempt to rebuild the economy on more stable ground, and will only grow more rapidly under a Labour government. Currently, a number of strong and well funded organisations are supporting the growth of SEs in the UK, and are able to support any legal challenges that may arise to ensure the SVA is fully entrenched, so we're potentially about to sail into uncharted waters.

In terms of public monies and heritage though, the obvious elephant in the room is the Heritage Lottery Fund, which distributed £411.8million in the last twelve months alone - that's close to half a billion pounds of public funding which by the letter of the new law should come under the same scrutiny as any other public spending in terms of social value. Whilst a raft of HLF money is focussed upon smaller-scale local projects with immediately obvious social benefits, a large proportion of total HLF spend necessarily ends up in the coffers of large construction firms, consultants, legal firms, insurance companies, etc. that have no obvious vested interest in the upkeep of heritage. HLF now have the potential to widen their already huge positive impact upon heritage by requiring companies receiving large amounts of their cash to demonstrate their social impact as part of the tendering process. Companies that have demonstrable environmental policies, invest in the communities they work in or donate company time/resources to good causes (heritage perhaps?) would have a distinct, and technically legally supported advantage over competitors when all other things are equal. Let's see what the future brings.

As a final note...what are Big Heritage doing?

Big Heritage has always been an experiment as much as it is a company. It's evolved over the last few years to utilise heritage in all forms to (amongst other things) raise educational aspirations in socio-economically deprived areas and provide inspiration for affecting positive social and environmental change in many arenas. This was recognised in 2013 with us receiving a Social Impact Award for our environmentally-themed ecoVikings project amongst a plethora of other shiny awards recognising our success. In fact; for us, heritage actually comes third in our company priorities behind people and planet - we see the past as a tool for change as much as something to preserve. This probably sounds like archaeological anathema to most, but that's just the way we roll!

That's not to say we're not every bit as committed to heritage as anyone else - we delivered heritage-themed events and educational workshops to around 40,000 people in 2013 and we're currently working on a number of projects across the UK that are raising awareness of neglected heritage sites whilst working behind the scenes locally to help remove an important Scheduled Ancient Monument off the EH 'at risk' register. But it's our social projects that really get us out of bed - and 2014 is going to see us partnering with Can Cook to explore food poverty, challenging attitudes to immigration with MD Productions and (hot off the press!) working with Heart Research UK to use archaeology as a tool to communicate diet and exercise in the past.

So for us, our social 'bottom line' is in a much stronger position than many larger archaeological firms with our expertise and experience rapidly catching up as we strengthen our skill-sets through new posts. We therefore feel well placed to begin growing a commercial archaeology arm to Big Heritage towards the end of 2014, being competitive in terms of cost and quality, but having the Social Value Act as a 'trump card' to wave in the faces of public purse-holders - i.e. paying for that watching brief is going some way to provide educational opportunities for children or allowing us to do more pro-bono LIDAR! Liverpool Council have already begun to entrench the act into their procurement process, and many more seem likely to follow suit.

Whilst not exactly light at the end of the tunnel, the Social Value Act represents a potential candle flickering in the dark of heritage cuts and a potential means of diverting some public funds out of privatised hands and back into communities.

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