How much are your legs worth? Bit of an odd question, isn’t it? How do you attach a financial value to your mobility? Whilst a bus or car can get you to the shops, they can’t dance, kick a ball around the park with a child or climb a ladder for work. Whilst it may seem nigh on impossible to attach a financial value to intangible benefits, it’s a concept the insurance industry is quite comfortable with. For example, the loss of both legs could net you between £191,000 and £225,000 in compensation. However, Cristiano Ronaldo’s legs are reportedly insured for £90m. Clearly the value of a pair of legs is highly dependent on the owner.
But what’s this got to do with buildings and planning? In the UK Government’s 25-year Environment Plan, it is proposed that a principle of ‘environmental net gain’ be adopted when planning for new development, through the process of accounting for natural capital. This, essentially, places a cash value on nature. For example, England’s woods and forests are valued at an estimated £2.3bn. Only 10% of this is timber value. The rest relates to the other benefits provided to society, such as human recreation and carbon sequestration.
In addition, the rise of social value accounting methods are often used to financially quantify the societal benefits new development will bring to an area. These benefits are often broken down into two parts; benefits to the individual and benefits to the state. A person who goes from being unemployed to being employed, for example, is likely to be better off individually, whilst also removing a cost to the state. For something like job creation, the mathematics is fairly straightforward. But how can you place a value on living in a safe neighbourhood, with no fear of crime?
Whilst the intent of social value and natural capital accounting methodologies are noble in that they can be used to hold design teams to account in demonstrating that they are providing environmental and social benefits as a result of development, there is a danger that a reliance on such tools can lead to planning-by-numbers, with no additional value placed on the design and context of proposals. This, too, is important. Both the revised NPPF and draft London Plan place a significant emphasis on the value of good design. Natural capital accounting can tell you that you need to plant trees, but you need an ecologist and a landscape architect to tell you where they will have the greatest impact on biodiversity and the public realm.
Planning departments are under resourced and are under constant pressure to produce outcomes that provide benefits to developers, communities and society. It is therefore understandable that tools which can be used to quantify the unquantifiable may be seen as a boon. However, the use of social value and natural capital accounting methods risks devaluing professional expertise if used in isolation. The insurance industry is often viewed as emotionless and insensitive to context. Let’s not let design, planning and development go the same way.