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Bookmark and ShareJody Aked is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

Before a room of 150 planners, architects, engineers, and developers who gathered on Wednesday night at the Building Centre in central London, nef set out the key ideas in its latest report Good Foundations: towards a low carbon, high well-being built environment.

The places and spaces we create form the back-drop of our everyday lives, providing a visual marker of the values that we live by. So why is it that we have ended up with a development model for the built environment so disconnected from those things in life that really matter? Sunand Prasad, immediate past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, reflected that ‘the metrics of success have been too narrow’, while journalist Anna Minton explained that ‘we have lost a notion of the public good, both conceptually and literally’. Both accounts indicate that the priorities of decision makers are somehow out of touch with the things that make the biggest difference to our lives, now and in the future. In particular, the preoccupation with short-term financial returns has meant that we have increasingly treated our houses and public spaces as commodities to be traded, rather than things of inherent value that contribute to our individual and collective well-being.

As efforts to patch up the current financial system continue, and investment into development projects begins to regain momentum, Good Foundations calls for a development model that is fit for purpose. As Stewart Wallis, Executive Director of nef, emphasised, the stakes are high. Today’s challenges – climate change, spatial inequality, low levels of trust and belonging, weak local economies and poor housing quality, require a pro-active response in re-thinking an alternative vision of successful development, which balances social, economic and environmental value with financial return.

But how do we incorporate a broader definition of value that properly takes into account the drivers of people’s well-being into the way we plan, design and develop our neighbourhoods? Good Foundations, sets out a proposition – that when, in 20 years time, we examine the results of our efforts today, our markers of success should be neighbourhoods that promote two key outcomes. These are:

  • place Happiness, the personal, social and economic well-being of their inhabitants, and
  • place Sustainability, which arises from minimising the environmental impact throughout both the construction process and lifetime of a building or place.

The aim of Good Foundations, the final report of a project funded by the Happold Trust, was always to stimulate the beginnings of a cultural shift in the built environment sector. During last night’s discussions, comments from the audience were reassuringly ambitious. In thinking about the report’s final recommendation to test and develop the mechanisms we propose in practice, it was suggested that a sustainable well-being approach should be applied to large infrastructural projects including the development of zero carbon neighbourhoods and large-scale retrofit projects.

Recognition in the sector of the interdependence of well-being and sustainability is critical, not least because the built environment influences all of us when it comes to the choices and decisions we make on a day-to-day basis. As last night proved, the enthusiasm for a genuinely new way of doing things is there. The burning question that remains is: where will the UK’s first low carbon, high well-being neighbourhood be?

Bookmark and ShareAleksi Knuutila is a researcher in the Valuing What Matters programme at nef

Some commentators believe that the worst of the current recession is behind us. Whether this is true or not, we can be sure that its full social consequences have not yet been felt. People are still losing their work, and unemployment may well rise to 3 million next year. Drastic cuts in spending may make this harmful trend worse.

As previous nef research expected, the recession increases the gap between wealthy and poor areas. Recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation the communities that already had highest unemployment have suffered the largest losses of jobs. These areas don’t suffer only from a lack of employment. The downturn has also forced over half of local authorities to reduce their staff and cuts services. The poorest neighbourhoods suffer from both job losses and a cut in the services that support them.

In the form of benefit payments, billions of pounds are spent on these areas. These resources succeed in keeping their recipients out of the gutter. At the same time, benefit payments constrain claimants’ possibilities to improve their lives. Our social security functions more like a trap than a ladder, and is fuelling the deprivation of poor communities.

Welfare reform has for long focused on making work pay. nef’s new report, Benefits That Work, shows that purely financial calculations don’t capture what matters to the unemployed. Benefit claimants are above all concerned that accepting work will make their life more insecure. Benefits systems are function like an on-off switch; either you are on it or not. This makes it insensitive to the fickle and uncertain nature of today’s labour market. Taking up a job with irregular hours and no employment protection risks leaving people penniless.

The benefits spend could be channelled so that it allows people to improve their own communities while helping them to move towards employment. Benefits That Work presents an Social Return on Investment (SROI) analysis of an innovative scheme to make the happen. With the Community Allowance, community organizations would be able to hire unemployed people to work with them for the good of their area. The participants would have their benefits secured for a year, and would be able to earn a small, capped income on top of them. Protecting the current level of benefits would allow the claimants, with the support from the community organization, to focus their efforts on moving towards the labour market.

What makes the Community Allowance effective is that it plays up the strengths of the claimants. Many employment schemes offer subsidized work placements for the unemployed. They often leave the participants feeling stigmatized, as if they would not be good enough for the work without government footing the bill. In contrast, Community Allowance engages the unemployed in work that they are best placed to perform, due to their close connections with the neighbourhood or their capacity to act as positive role models.

Our SROI analysis of the Community Allowance shows that for each £1 invested into it, £10 of social value is created. This extra value is received by the participants, their communities and families. The state is likely to recuperate more than the resources necessary to run the scheme. Channelling the benefits spend so that it works for the good of deprived will take the edge off the ruin of the downturn.

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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.