Building social infrastructure

How can we best support and sustain the schools, surgeries, community and cultural centres that make up our social glue? At the second debate in a series on city life, in association with AluK, the expert panel had plenty of ideas

In association with
The Social Infrastructure debate panel line-up, from left: Will Sandy, creative director, The Edible Bus Stop;  Chloe Obi, head of BIM, Bouygues UK; Peter Head (chair), founder and CEO, The Ecological Sequestration Trust; Colin Ross, director, Cornerstone; and Andrew Neill, director, infrastructure finance, Investec Bank.
The Social Infrastructure debate panel line-up, from left: Will Sandy, creative director, The Edible Bus Stop; Chloe Obi, head of BIM, Bouygues UK; Peter Head (chair), founder and CEO, The Ecological Sequestration Trust; Colin Ross, director, Cornerstone; and Andrew Neill, director, infrastructure finance, Investec Bank.

Look at the promotional flyers of the political parties vying for your support in the general election on 8 June and expressions of commitment to health and education feature prominently once again. Politicians and public recognise that schools, doctors’ surgeries, leisure centres, museums and community centres are key services for our health and wellbeing, and form the social glue of our communities.

How that social infrastructure is provided in the city context is, however, open to question. Funding may dominate the political agenda right now but other forces such as planning, climate change, governance, new technology, big data, risk management, and security and safety also pose myriad questions for the shape and sustainability of new and existing facilities.

‘At the moment we’re in a place where we don’t know enough,’ is how Peter Head, founder and chief executive of charity The Ecological Sequestration Trust, summarises the present situation. Head was speaking at and chairing the second in a series of debates, sponsored by AluK, which aims to address the challenges of today’s cities. This second debate, which took place in London last week, focused on how the public and private sectors, funders, architects and others in the construction industry can develop strategies to support and sustain social infrastructure in cities. Sitting with Head on the panel for the debate were Andrew Neill, director, infrastructure finance, PPP/social infrastructure team at Investec Bank; Chloe Obi, head of BIM at Bouygues UK; Will Sandy, creative director at landscape architecture and design consultancy The Edible Bus Stop; and Colin Ross, director at social investment business Cornerstone.

The AluK Social Infrastructure panel debate in May 2017.
The AluK Social Infrastructure panel debate in May 2017.

Ross set out the experience of Cornerstone, a company that works with the public sector to help release land and assets for schools and affordable homes. ‘In areas like London, it can be difficult to find sites in areas where the infrastructure is required,’ he said. ‘Proposals can become political and controversial.’ Cities that have suffered industrial decline pose their own challenges in encouraging people to move into renewal areas and using infrastructure to make a market. Where projects are providing both housing and education, there can also be problems in cross-funding across the two very diverse markets.

Not all social infrastructure is welcomed. If you are trying to locate a bail hostel, for example, then you can come up against pressures from local communities and their politicians

Michael Dunning, architect, EA Swainston Architects

Architects could help in overcoming the barriers, said Ross. ‘Creative input is needed from day one in establishing the problem and its solution.’ But Neill cautioned that projects brought forward by public sector sponsors are governed by their own approaches, funding streams, types of asset and service. ‘It can be difficult to do something unless there’s a scoring system to show value for money.’

  • Will Sandy, creative director, The Edible Bus Stop and Chloe Obi, head of BIM, Bouygues UK at AluK's Social Infrastructure panel debate.
    Will Sandy, creative director, The Edible Bus Stop and Chloe Obi, head of BIM, Bouygues UK at AluK's Social Infrastructure panel debate.
  • Colin Ross, director, Cornerstone at AluK's Social Infrastructure panel debate.
    Colin Ross, director, Cornerstone at AluK's Social Infrastructure panel debate.
  • Chloe Obi and Peter Head (chair), founder and CEO, The Ecological Sequestration Trust.
    Chloe Obi and Peter Head (chair), founder and CEO, The Ecological Sequestration Trust.
  • The panellists at May's Social Infrastructure debate at the AluK Studio in Old Street.
    The panellists at May's Social Infrastructure debate at the AluK Studio in Old Street.
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Head noted that a key learning point from the debate was that ‘It’s very hard in the early stage to connect design and human health and wellbeing outcomes. We’re missing tools and methods.’ Building information modelling (BIM) is one tool that can already be useful in the early stages of a project. ‘We have quick and dirty models available early to show to the community, to the teachers and pupils of a school, for example,’ explained Obi. ‘We can use BIM or virtual reality in communities to drive conversations with key stakeholders.’ BIM could be applied to help bridge the gap in demonstrating value for money to the Treasury, Head suggested, if construction, funders and the public sector could work together to enable the benefits of social infrastructure to be modelled at procurement stage.

A lot of cities are facing similar problems. We need to make the distinction between architecture and the nature of cities, and the way that land available in cities is becoming more and more cramped

Alan Crawford, founder, Crawford Partnership

Such research and development might help to answer one of the enduring questions of regeneration and placemaking investment: is it better value to invest in a statement project, or a series of smaller, lower profile interventions? From David Chipperfield’s Turner Contemporary in Margate to Eric Kuhne’s Titanic Museum in Belfast, there are examples of major projects intended as catalysts for and symbols of change. But the government’s 2016 culture white paper promoted a lower profile approach, called the Great Place Scheme, which in its pilot phase has channelled £20 million of National Lottery and Arts Council England funding into 16 locations across England. This funding is helping to deliver more locally focused cultural initiatives through placemaking.

  • The audience at AluK's Social Infrastructure debate in Old Street, London.
    The audience at AluK's Social Infrastructure debate in Old Street, London.
  • The audience at AluK's Social Infrastructure debate in Old Street, London.
    The audience at AluK's Social Infrastructure debate in Old Street, London.
  • The audience at AluK's Social Infrastructure debate in Old Street, London.
    The audience at AluK's Social Infrastructure debate in Old Street, London.
  • The audience at AluK's Social Infrastructure debate in Old Street, London.
    The audience at AluK's Social Infrastructure debate in Old Street, London.
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Edible Bus Stop’s Sandy contrasted London’s controversial Garden Bridge with his team’s work transforming hostile patches of urban streetscape into green, active community spaces. ‘Love it or loathe it, it [the Garden Bridge] has got us all talking about green infrastructure,’ he said. ‘But we calculated that the money that could be spent on the bridge could instead be used by the London boroughs to each create 33 new green spaces. 

‘There are 17,800 bus stops in London, and if half of those were greened it would improve people’s lives on a daily basis.’

Before entering the profession I thought architects designed new schools and hospitals based on the need for them. But new hospital buildings are being dictated not by need but by political issues

Architect working with the health sector

While public funding for such projects may be in short supply, private capital could be more readily available, although Cornerstone’s Ross sounded a note of caution. ‘Putting in infrastructure at the start of a project can take 15, 20 or more years to repay, and that long-term patient capital is harder to find.’

Head explained that the UK is failing to seize opportunities, notably in tapping into the financial community’s recognition of the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals, covering areas from poverty to education. ‘Why is the government not establishing the mechanisms to allow capital to flow through to provide the facilities that Britain needs?’ he asked. ‘We’ve got to engage government and allow private sector funding to flow.’

Action may be needed on many fronts, but Head believes solutions are achievable. ‘The UK can lead and I think we’ll find the ways and the tools,’ he said. It is a nut that must be cracked for all of our sakes. As Ross said: ‘If cities are to function as centres of high productivity, social infrastructure is essential, whether that’s in our jobs, our leisure, or getting the kids to school.’


Six ways to sustainable social infrastructure

  1. Better planning from central and local government in matching need for services to projects
  2. Training in urban economics for architects
  3. More integrated approaches to funding to break down funding stream silos
  4. Mechanisms to connect capital to projects
  5. Embedding and integrating social infrastructure into its community
  6. More tools, methods, data and evidence. Specifically more research is needed to provide evidence on the performance of facilities for social infrastructure to enable the business case for investment to be made. Such research – and project feedback – is important to managing risk.

This was a RIBA Journal event organised in association with AluK www.aluk.co.uk