While the Social Value Act challenges public bodies to procure with a view to improving social, economic and environmental well-being, the title speaks for itself: the language we use has impact and the history of the Social Value Act is one dominated by addressing social inequalities and economic growth far more than the environment. As a contrast, comparable legislation in Scotland (the Procurement Reform (Scotland) Act 2014) and Wales (the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015) are both more holistic and ambitious in their approach.
The public purse will remain a significant part of how we address the challenges of climate change, from major national infrastructure projects to the provision of local services. Cities across the UK are setting their own climate targets, with aims to be carbon neutral (or zero carbon) by 2050 (London), 2038 (Manchester), or even 2030 (Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds). These all need to contribute to a national aim of reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 (which must itself become more ambitious).
A focus on poverty and exclusion remains important. Indeed, creating a more equal society and tackling climate change are closely linked: generating local employment reduces transport miles, for example, and refurbishing furniture and white goods then sold to social housing tenants creates jobs, enhances skills, provides to those in need and reduces waste to landfill.
The answer, therefore, lies not in focusing on the environmental pillar of wellbeing to the detriment of the social and the economic, but in recognising the synergies between the three with a view to maximising overall value and benefit rather than carving out niches. The Social Value Act provides the solution in its drafting: we must focus both on what is purchased, and on the method of procurement, to seek maximum impact, redesigning the subject matter of the contract first to seek a different result, demanding efficient and effective use of our limited resources, and then procuring based on what is truly important – both achieving a more equal society and leaving the right legacy to future generations.
But the twin goals of tackling poverty, and surviving climate change, can only be achieved through recognising some hard truths for those at the top: that as well as raising the quality of life for those at greatest disadvantage, the task ahead of us is to find a path to maintaining (in many cases achieving) high living standards while consuming less overall.
The public sector role in this must not simply be to impose standards from above but to actively help the nation on the path to wide-ranging behavioural change. When it comes to deploying public resources, every penny must be focused on achieving all three pillars of social value, and public bodies must act as exemplars not just through their procurement but in the way their entire organisations work – properly incorporating social value in all its forms into the organisation, not just some of its processes.