Bringing Socially Inclusive Outcomes into the Mainstream
Infrastructure projects don’t exist in isolation. They are there to serve communities and are normally financed by society, either through rail fares or taxes. Funding bodies, investors and contractors have a responsibility to ensure these projects give back as much as possible in socially inclusive outcomes. We shouldn’t just be thinking in terms of creating, upgrading or maintaining a piece of infrastructure, we should actively seeking opportunities to make life easier or better and to provide opportunities for greater access, inclusion and social mobility for as many people as possible.
First, we have to be clear what we mean when we talk about society and communities. Nearly 13m people in the UK have some kind of long-term illness, a disability or an impairment. In 1974, 13.8% of the population was over the age of 65, by 2024 the percentage is expected to be just under 20%. For too long we have looked at the needs of the less able and elderly as a detail or an added benefit, whereas their needs are very much mainstream.
Much has also been written about widening sense of inequality and a growing gulf between people with wealth and power, and those without. In the long-term, perceived lack of opportunity and marginalisation carry grave risks for social stability and sustainable economic development. The billions invested in infrastructure projects offer opportunities to do something practical and meaningful about this.
Without thought, major infrastructure projects can not only bypass communities but can leave them feeling even more cut off and isolated. With greater understanding and engagement, we can connect people – not just to infrastructure and places, but with opportunities to learn, train and secure high value employment. That would be a real legacy from a major construction project.
In simple ways we should also ask ourselves much more searching questions. For example, when we build a road are we thinking about people who might not be in a vehicle who could also use that space. Trees, benches, safe pavements and cycle lanes could help to cut pollution, encourage people to be more active and alleviate social isolation.
To come back to the original point, projects need to be planned and delivered alongside and with communities and not ‘done to them.’ This makes economic sense at a macro level – ensuring that public investment delivers maximum public benefit – but also at the level of projects and businesses. These benefit from local employment, greater diversity to support innovation, and fewer local objections to planned developments because everyone is very clearly sharing the benefits of the investment.