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Article written by Ivan Tennant for the New Start magazine looking at how the development industry can embrace the new era of well-being.

A year has passed since the Prime Minster brought ‘well-being’ centre stage. Since then, there has been a flurry of activity at both the national level, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is busy developing a method of measurement, and the international, with the OECD producing in October 2011 their report entitled How’s Life that presents theirs.  In the UK, these initiatives are linked with localism and how to achieve ‘sustainable development.’ For those concerned with the lack of balance within the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and, indeed, regeneration practice as a whole, between economic issues on the one hand and environmental and social issues on the other, it is hoped this interest in well-being will precipitate a culture change through the development of a proper means of measuring this complex notion, with the resulting metrics driving policy changes that impose obligations on relevant commercial sectors, not least the development industry, to address particularly social issues with greater commitment and seriousness. 

While a concern for well-being is not new, the intellectual root of the current interest in policy circles stems from Joseph Stiglitz’s report produced for Nicholas Sarkozy in 2010. The Stiglitz report responds to an increasing realisation that the traditional measures of national prosperity, with GDP head of the list, give an incomplete picture of a nation’s prosperity. Given these are not just used to indicate performance, but also to develop policy, this is of great concern. A key conclusion of the report is the ‘dashboard’ of indictors policy makers rely on is incomplete;  Stiglitz goes as far as to speculate that had a boarder set of indicators been in place during the noughties, we might have been more circumspect about whether the levels of economic growth seen during the boom years from 2004 to 2007 were the result of sustainable economic activity, or other less benign behaviours.  

The work of the ONS has involved a ‘debate’ with the public at large called ‘what matters to you.’ Its purpose has been to ensure measures of well-being eventually adopted would feel right for ordinary people as well as government. On top of this, a review of existing data sources and measures were carried out, including the work of the OECD. In July, the ONS produced what amounts to an interim statement, Measuring National Well-being, outlining a proposed methodology.  At an international level, there is a concern that countries adopt similar methods so accurate international comparisons can be drawn. Two key areas of commonality emerge; firstly, measures should seek to combine both objective well-being, such as access to decent housing and education levels, with those that are more subjective, identifying what people value in their own lives and whether they are achieving them. , ,  Secondly, there is a tacit acceptance that only current, as opposed to future, well-being can be accurately measured. Controversially, this removes the need to consider the impact of climate change on well-being over time. This contradicts key work done by the New Economics Foundation (nef) that insists well-being must encompass issues of environmental sustainability; indeed they talk about ‘sustainable well-being.’   The ONS document is silent on this issue, relying on the OECD report to make their case for them.  How’s Life? cites firstly great uncertainty on the ‘size of the impacts’ from climate change and the absence of ‘comparable indictors that meet agreed standards’   as their reasons for their position. 

On the whole, the development industry exhibits a lack of concern how building impacts on well-being . This is perhaps understandable given that in the UK volume house builders tend to have a short term relationship their developments and a focus on well-being necessarily involves a consideration of what can be done to foster civic resilience over time. The industry would be wise, however,  to note the importance in political circles being given to well-being  and the expectations this will raise for the sector to improve its performance.

As well as precipitate a search for new approaches at the international level, the ‘great recession’ has brought about a change in perception at the roots of society too. The Young Foundation has noted an increased concern for how we can encourage community and individual resilience in difficult times;  it can largely explain the emergence of the ‘civic economy’ as a key strand of regeneration thinking; it has led to a questioning of the masterplan approach to planning large scale development in favour of creating a framework for incremental change by many actors, so called ‘massive small;’  it has allowed a mainstreaming of the transition towns philosophy in programmes for urban renewal.  These changes chart a shift to what nef has called a ‘broader definition of value,’ and is supported by the findings of ONS’s own debate in which people cite health, relationships, work and the environment as their priorities in promoting well-being.  The urgency with which we should heed these findings were perhaps brought home to us in no uncertain terms by the riots over the summer.

The opportunity for the development industry to play its part is manifest and the notion of well-being has worked its way into planning policy. The first draft of the NPPF states it is the role of the planning system to ‘promote well-being for all .’ While the document neither defines well-being nor sets out how the system should deliver this, this does constitute explicit in principle support. A clue as regards delivery can, however, be found in the Localism Bill which, as a result of intervention by the RTPI, now recognises the opportunity that neighbourhood planning offers to foster community well-being.  Within policy, well-being and localism are therefore closely related. The seriousness with which it is taken by the industry may therefore depend largely on the success with which the government moves its localism agenda forward. The ONS recognises the indissoluble link between well-being and planning policy noting ‘the sustainable development indicators and national measures of wellbeing now under development are complementary and should be integrated.’

Supporting ‘environmental quality’ and promoting civic resilience are, clearly, two areas where the development industry has a role to play. Measuring National Well-being stresses that ‘importance of access to good quality local green spaces rather than wider environmental issues’  define people’s notion of ‘environmental quality.’ Despite this being a somewhat specious distinction, this is the evidence that perhaps lets them off the hook in considering ‘environmental sustainability’ in their measurement of well-being as nef would wish. The requirement to deliver residential development with green space within easy walking distance is an established part of urban design practice. What is less accepted is the need to design places that facilitate strong relationships to emerge within the community, despite Halpern’s well know study that shows, for example, the more cars that pass along a street, the less likely it is that the residents will know their neighbours or describe them as friendly.

The industry has a job to do to learn how to integrate a sense of well-being into their practice; a number of emerging methodologies do, however, exist. Nef offers an outline methodology in their study Good Foundations. Their approach has arisen from studies conducted as part of the regeneration activity in two estates in Peckham and combines the notions of ‘Place Happiness’ and ‘Place Sustainability’. The former includes issues of personal psychological well-being, and how well-being is influenced by social and environmental factors; the later captures the way buildings have an impact on the environment. The methodology put forward in essence involves a three stage process; establishing a ‘stakeholder value map’ through early stage community engagement work, production of a ‘design proof’ that sets out a vision for ‘sustainable well-being’ that captures both PH and PS issues and devising a proper means of measuring  success over the longer term.

The Young Foundation, as part of their Future Communities project have evolved the notion of WARM, a ‘wellbeing and resilience measure.’ Using data sets that are already in existence, for example, the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), WARM is a complete five stage process that allows communities and local authorities to understand both strengths and weaknesses in key areas of well-being and develop strategies to deliver improvements. Describing their process as ‘iterative’ they highlight the need both to devise a means of accurately measuring baseline characteristics and to carry out periodic evaluations to understand the on-going impact of well-being strategies. This will ensure the programme is constantly refocused on areas of greatest need.

Tim Dixon at Oxford Brookes works with the notion of ‘social sustainability,’ basing his work on the need for a more balanced approach to development, one that recognises social, as well as economic and environmental factors, as one of the key pillars on which sustainability sits. Citing definitional and measurement issues as the main reasons why ‘social’ tends to be overlooked, he offers Vancouver’s Social Development Plan as one way forward. Underpinned by the four ‘guiding principles’ of ‘equity’ (ie, having enough resources to participate fully in society), ‘inclusiveness,’ ‘resilience’ and ‘security,’ it addresses individuals’ basic needs, creates opportunities for them to build capacity through life and offers a framework within which to build social resilience within the wider community.

Plan Projects, in developing our own working practices, has sought to combine the thinking behind these methodologies with our own approach to strive towards best practice. This is reflected most recently in our cultural study for Salford City Council, looking at the regeneration of the inner city area of Pendleton. Our approach firstly seeks to understand the values of the local community and what possessing a strong civic culture meant to them. This gave rise to a number of indicators that provided the basis for an evaluative framework designed to ensure resources were properly targeted. Secondly, we adopt emphatically holistic approach, one that actively addressed economic, environmental and social factors in a balanced way.  Thirdly, we assert the importance of stakeholders staying the course in delivering the agreed programme over the longer term, using the evaluation to make adjustments as time goes by, with a governance structure and approach to funding put in place that would allow for this. Working in partnership with the LPA, we underline the importance of putting the local community in the driving seat to develop and deliver these programmes. In light of the current proposed reforms to the planning system, it must be hoped the emerging legal framework to facilitate localism will deliver the authority and resources for them to do so.


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