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Social value in the era of Covid 19

Sophie Walker, head of UK Sustainability, discusses how real estate can rebuild a fair and inclusive society

Covid-19 presents us with an unprecedented global economic and social crisis that businesses and society must navigate. The crisis has exacerbated existing inequalities, with those in low income households and BAME communities impacted most. The Bank of England has cautioned that by the end of 2020, the UK economy could diminish by 14%, with unemployment rates set to double throughout the year. Since March, over a quarter of British employees have been furloughed while the number of people in the UK claiming unemployment benefits soared by nearly 70% in April. Such predictions illustrate what could be one of the deepest recessions we have seen in modern history.

While the economic picture is challenging, we have also seen the very best of people during the last three months. Public generosity and community spirit is stronger than most of us have witnessed in our lifetimes. In March, the NHS called for 250,000 volunteers to support the national effort and received more than three times that number of applications within days. Communities have rallied together with mutual aid groups providing support to vulnerable neighbours and the term ‘essential workers’ has never felt more pertinent as our care workers, refuse collectors and many more, have kept society functioning, often at risk to themselves.

In the real estate sector, companies such as Grosvenor, British Land and The Crown Estate have been quick to offer rent deferrals to independent or at-risk tenants and have offered several properties to key workers and local councils. Landsec and Legal & General have both set up emergency community funds for charities and voluntary organisations.

Remarkably, in some cases, the apparently impossible has been achieved overnight. Charities such as Crisis have been campaigning for decades for the injustice of homelessness to end. Recognising the severe impacts of Covid-19 on those sleeping rough, the government acted decisively to provide safe, temporary accommodation for over 5,000 people. Such swift and comprehensive action on an area often deemed to be intractable has opened our eyes to the art of the possible, if only we dream big enough.

Getting serious about purpose as we enter the new normal

Within a short time, we have witnessed the power of collective action with business, the public sector and charities working together. It is crucial that we do not lose this when new normality returns. With the direct impact buildings have on quality of life, our sector is at the core of this potential societal transformation and must play its part by focussing on the following priorities.

The first thing the sector must do is get serious about social purpose. Business in the Community’s Responsible Business Tracker shows a huge increase in its members setting out their corporate purpose: in a recent survey 93% have a purpose but only 54% welcome public scrutiny of their purpose. Whilst they can feel abstract, adopted faithfully, a strong purpose can create social value, attract talent and improve financial performance. So if you are a real estate business that hasn’t articulated its social purpose, you definitely need to. And if you have set your social purpose, you then need to translate this purpose into strategy and actions, to be very transparent about your social impact and to welcome external and internal challenge of your performance.

Making sure we deliver social value locally

Having put your social purpose in place, it is important to get serious about delivering social value in partnership with communities. This is an area that some in property have long done well – especially retail and mixed-use – with many highly successful local employment and fundraising programmes. More recently, the property sector has excelled in thoughtful design of buildings and public realm in order to encourage community activities and customer footfall.

But during Covid-19, there has been a disparity between businesses that have been equipped to respond, and those that haven’t. In my view, those that have done this with agility have strong grass-roots community relationships or deep strategic corporate partnerships or, better still, both. This has meant they can pick up the phone to charities and pivot their resources swiftly, whilst ensuring they continue to create a genuine impact.

To give one example, Golden Square Shopping Centre in Warrington, owned by LaSalle Investment Management, expanded its GSCares mental health and wellbeing programme, set up last year to support staff, to help the wider community during Covid 19. This included working with mental health charities and the Warrington Foodbank to focus efforts on critical local need.

These types of partnerships now become must haves. Covid-19 won’t be the last crisis to strike, but the relationships we build now will revolutionise our ability to respond effectively.

Ensuring that we bake-in fairness and inclusion in everything we do

Every business setting out a clear social purpose and delivering transparently on social value locally would be transformative for the sector. Doing this successfully, however, necessitates a meaningful commitment to equality and inclusion.

Becoming a Living Wage employer, and advocating Living Wage certification to tenants and suppliers, is a basic principle which the sector should adopt. Committing to meaningful action on supporting the entry, progression and wellbeing of underrepresented groups should be a priority for every single leader in our industry.

Moreover, for our industry, commitments on inclusion need translating into bricks and mortar. Buildings and spaces will need to be safe, welcoming and accessible. As we reopen from Covid-19 and those have been shielding come out of lockdown, real estate will need to rethink the use of buildings to allow vulnerable people to feel safe. Fundamentally in the long-term buildings need to meet the needs of those who use them.

If the real estate sector takes all these three steps – getting serious about purpose, delivering social value locally and ensuring inclusion and fairness - then we have a fighting chance of playing our part in rebuilding an inclusive, fairer society for all.

This article first appeared in EG on 18 June, 2020

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