Insights article

Embedding social value in master plans through early engagement and post-occupancy reviews

Sebastian Weise
Published: 25/04/2019

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Why should we care about social value in master planning?

It has never been more important for housebuilders to define and quantify the benefits their projects have for the areas where they built. In England, the drive to deliver up to 300,000 new homes each year put the emphasis on volume over quality and, as some argued, have come at a detriment of quality.

We need an agenda based on building quality developments, that stand the test of time, not only in terms of 'raw' performance numbers but also in terms of the ability to build strong quality communities that have access to the social amenities for a good life. This extra benefit an investment can have on the surrounding area can be referred to as the 'social value'. 

In the current climate, a focus on social value can become a selling point for developers, as buyers look for a better quality of life, walkable neighbourhoods, and access to local amenities. Follow a number of distinct benefits for developers who follow an agenda of quality based on social value, through things such as commitment to early engagement and regular, systematic reviews:

  • As Social Value UK points out, the ‘soft benefits’ of a scheme have a genuine impact on what the developer can achieve at market prices.
  • Since the 2012 Public Services (Social Value) Act, social value is also a consideration in the weighing of planning permissions and local planning in the UK.
  • Project owners who can comfortably evidence social value in their scheme have an advantage at planning application stage through the additional support it can generate.
  • By quantifying the benefits a previous scheme has delivered to local areas, residents and the new communities they built, those housebuilders are in a powerful position to start a positive dialogue and persuade stakeholders to back their new project.

How can you incorporate social value throughout the planning process?

There are a essential things to do to embed social value in master-planned schemes at different times of the construction value cycle. 

At its heart, social value is about the process as well as the outcomes. 


At PlaceChangers, we know that the social value of a development is strengthened with the level of engagement by design teams with local requirements. 

What kind of housing is lacking? What kinds of social amenities are underprovided? Ideally, there's a clear link between developer contributions and the lack of provision in supporting infrastructure locally. The best way to evidence this is through early engagement. 

We see the following two options as useful consultation ideas: 

  • Housing needs and character surveys - linked to previous designs and housing provided locally. Invite people to send in design inspirations from their neighbourhood and feedback on housing choices using inspirations from past projects.
  • Conduct design reviews as part of pre-application consultation which allow for feedback on-site options to set the parameters for everything you develop. If multiple designs are on offer, provide a portfolio of design options and materials to choose from. 

A development has multiple benefits, certainly for the developer in terms of sales, but also in terms of the new offering provided in terms of house choices and wider developer contributions to the local environment. 

For the design process, establish a clear organisational commitment towards early community engagement in your master planning work. Members of the public generally accept that there are natural limits what influence they can have on development, so a blank paper discussion is not expected. However, it helps to build opportunities early on to shape the development based on simple options. 


A review of practice by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) found that only 10% of its chartered practices offer post-occupancy evaluationsAnd a 2020 survey that only 4 per cent of AJ100 practices always perform them; and 48 per cent never evaluate the performance of their projects ‘occasionally’. These figures demonstrate the substantial missed opportunity to capture lessons learned from previous projects in order to improve and shape future projects. 

While a wide range of methods exists to judge the performance of buildings, such as in terms of energy efficiency, and conformance to the required building standards. When it comes to project completion, project owners may prefer to focus on the level of snagging requests as a measure of quality; sales conversions, average unit price and so on. As time goes on, developers hand homes to buyers, attention shifts to the next project. Perhaps a feedback form is used upon completion. 

The new occupants’ satisfaction with their new neighbourhood in the longer-term is rarely surveyed partly due to a mismatch of interests, lack of provision of funds for post-occupancy reviews. With reduced ability to consider the links between design and its desired outcomes, such as health, wellbeing and positive emotions towards ones home, plans end up as bland estates rather than the kinds of places where people want to live?

Flora Samuel, the vice-chair for research at RIBA, has been developing the Social Value toolkit in 2017. The frameworks dimensions give an overview of the aspects to consider that can constitute the success of a project beyond its paper value. To identify the soft benefits a development project has had, post-occupancy evaluation can look into the following aspects:

  • Running costs: the quality of space and the efficiency of the accommodation, which can be an important factor in fuel poverty.
  • Freedom and flexibility: the occupants' ability to live a free and carefree life in the neighbourhood by, for example, not having to worry about kids playing outside as sufficient private or safe spaces are provided.
  • Connection: The extent to which residents feel connected and how much they interact with their neighbours to resolve neighbourhood matters.
  • Active lifestyles: The support for leading an active life with access to places to play out, walk, cycle, and be active within the neighbourhood.
  • Positive emotions: The extent to which the neighbourhood character uplifts the individual’s spirit.
  • Taking notice: The awareness and use by occupants of social amenities provided nearby and appreciation of the quality of the neighbourhood.
  • Participation: The occupant's ability and level of engagement in being involved in decisions relating to the maintenance of their neighbourhood and their ability to adapt their accommodation to their needs.

Building back better through a robust design process

Early engagement can be easier and even more powerful if it does not come as a surprise, but instead is part of the organisations' approach. And indeed, if the organisation consistently captures lessons learned from previous projects and incorporates them as feeder in early-engagement stages, it has a great appeal for participants and local residents. 

To incorporate a learning process into a development portfolio, developers would need to create a consistent policy for delivering post-occupancy reviews on a larger share of their projects, and develop a capacity to engage early on for new sites. A consistent process for community engagement and follow-up has the potential to capture robust insights into the success of development at the design stage and beyond.

It is important to determine the suitable formats and timing of engagement in retrospect. On the high-level, the choices are between bespoke, personal-intensive reviews of a scheme, or a more standardised can consistent method of reviewing their new surroundings with occupants via digital survey tools. 

There is no doubt, that detailed qualitative post-occupancy evaluations with buyers are an excellent method to gather in-depth insights and capturing lessons-learned on a wide range of levels, from the internal aspects of the accommodation to wider urban design-related questions. Often there's a benefit also to consider other stakeholders, that were key to the delivery. 

Digital and online methods present can present a lower-cost and convenient approach for occupants to feedback on specific aspects of their new environment. Digital tools also stand the greatest chance to become part and parcel of your approach to design and development, which in turn can become a key part of marketing new projects to future buyers. Easy-to-use online tools help to embed community feedback at critical stages of the design process, as well as automating the opportunity to learn from designs that worked well later on. 

Get in touch with us to learn how to embed a consistent approach to follow-up for your development projects.

Explore the PlaceChangers planning toolkit

PC Engagement - market leading planning engagement

Set up powerful interactive consultations for planning projects. 

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PC Site Insights - Place insights tool for health and wellbeing 

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