What does equitable mean in the context of real estate?

Wilmer Place © We Are Visuals

Sara Bailey, Senior Partner at Trowers & Hamlins reflects on how the sector is responding to the challenges of making our towns, cities and communities more equitable post-pandemic.

The word that has come more to the fore through this difficult period is “equitable” and how the pandemic has shown that our cities and towns have an inequality running through them in a number of ways. But what does equitable mean in the context of real estate? Can the world of the built environment play a major role in creating a more equal society and if the answer is yes, how is this achieved?

To answer these questions, you have to look at what the underlying issues are in our towns and cities which perpetuate an unequal society. For a long-time housing and the affordability factor have been at the forefront and this is certainly a key factor in promoting an equitable society, however, it is not just affordability that needs to be looked at but quality as well; how space is designed, how common spaces are used and whether they are accessible are all crucial factors. It has become clear in the pandemic that these are all key areas that directly affect people’s physical and mental wellbeing, and the challenge is to incorporate these into all schemes not just those being sold to the wealthy.

Looking more widely than this, the sector has talked about social value or societal value for a long time.  When we at Trowers first commissioned our thought leadership ‘Highly Valued, Hard to Value’ back in 2016, it was viewed as being innovative and on the periphery of the issues the sector was facing. It has now moved into being more than words, and organisations need to show how their businesses can provide social value not just for their own employees, but for their customers and wider communities. 

How it should be measured or indeed whether it should be measured is being highly debated, but the very fact that it is, underlines the increasing importance of the subject.

We carried out research in 2019 and 2020 about what makes cities prosperous, and the findings became more pronounced as the pandemic took hold. Integration between where people live and work, affordability, space inside and outside of buildings and connectivity were all key.

The question now is how can we create places that can be both flexible and resilient in the longer term, and how can we revitalise our town and city centres, investing and developing in a way that is inclusive?

The good news is we appear to be moving into a period of more tangible action. The Government has taken some steps through amendments to the Green Book in response to concerns that it may have contained inbuilt bias against certain areas of the UK. It has also bolstered how it measures social value when awarding its own central government contracts. This recognition within its own procurement processes takes into consideration aspects like economic inequality and equal opportunity, both central pillars to driving more equitable outcomes for our towns and cities, and most importantly the local communities within them.

Whilst some further recognition from government is positive, a lot of this change is being driven by sector bodies. UKGBC for example has recently introduced a framework to help the industry deliver social value projects. The London Sustainability Development Commission recently issued a consultation paper, which we responded to, on its proposal for a pan-London social value framework. In addition to this, bodies like the NLA are also running Think Tanks on how we can ‘unlock social value’. For change to really take effect government and industry bodies need to be careful that they do not take too formulaic a view which then creates a position where organisations try to avoid providing true social value as one size simply does not fit all.

So, five years on from our initial research piece and despite there being some way to go, there is cause for optimism and it would be a significant missed opportunity if we didn’t now look to learn the lessons of the last 12 months and tackle the inequality in our towns and cities across the country.