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Will ESG improve regeneration & development initiatives across the UK?

An interview with Dr Sophie Taysom, Keyah Consulting

The growth of environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles and practices continues to spotlight corporate behaviour and the impact it has on “people, place and planet”. And as debate on the future of housing, planning and the Greenbelt in the UK hots up, a revisit to the role of ESG in the Built Environment (BE) sector seems timely.

I’ve explored the potential impact of ESG in the BE sector over the last eighteen months in blogs here, here and here so was pleased to have an opportunity to speak with a leading specialist in the area, Dr Sophie Taysom, founder and director of Keyah Consulting, which provides ESG advisory services to companies across the built environment.

Sophie works with organisations such as My Global Home, Hydrock, Merchant Land and Northtree Investment Management and runs the ESG in Real Estate group on LinkedIn which has over 3,000 members.

She believes that as ESG principles and practices take root in the BE sector, local communities will benefit as the impact on their lives from real estate investment becomes more transparent and measurable.

The key is for all parties involved in local community investment to accept and use these metrics, and engage in dialogue using “a common language around impact”.

By all parties she is referring not only to the obvious visible protagonists in local development of investor/developer, community and LPA, but to all involved in the supply chain of property development. This includes designers, constructors, engineers as well as contractors and leaseholders. It is this breadth of organisations and the interdependence of their activities that defines the “built environment” sector, and that will ultimately and collectively embed ESG principles and practices into regeneration, housing and infrastructure in our communities.

I asked Sophie how this plays out, how practices differed from the often discredited Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) approach to corporate investment in communities, why they are often labelled as greenwashing, and where local people could look to draw inspiration on the benefits of ESG in their communities.

“As more BE organisations embrace ESG - and it is now the norm to do so as investors, employees and customers demand it – two things happen. One, an evidence base builds to demonstrate how BE organisations can invest with social impact. And second, metrics develop along with a common language and vocabulary that all organisations in the supply chain can use, share, interrogate, challenge and ultimately hold each other accountable with.”

Are these transparent and accessible to those outside the supply chain, for example LPAs and local community groups? “Absolutely” Sophie affirmed. But, she points out, there is often a disconnect between these parties in understanding a continually evolving system of measuring impact, and credits organisations like Centric Lab for supporting community groups in this area.

She distinguishes ESG practices strongly from CSR. Whereas the latter was a more philanthropy-driven practice with no balance sheet impact and subject to the whims of corporate managers, ESG is investor-driven and embedded in all operational aspects of corporate activity – finance, production, supply chain, talent acquisition and retention, marketing and communications. Where CSR was/is vulnerable to criticism and accusations of greenwashing, the “metrics and growing convergence of ESG practices allow for robust interrogation and challenge” and presumably, the development of metrics for greenwashing itself. Companies are more exposed than ever through ESG, she argues.

She points to two projects she’s involved with as inspiration for communities seeking to understand how to engage with BE investors impacting their local areas.

1. The Good Economy is developing models for verifying the impact claims of BE investment in local communities. Its approach to impact verification checks an investor's impact claims against specified industry standards. It involves an independent assessment of either impact management processes or impact performance.”

2. The Healthy Ageing Challenge funded by UK Research and Innovation has several place-specific projects designed to build evidence and create metrics to understand the links between places, placemaking and healthy ageing.

While many remain sceptical of ESG, it isn’t going away and in the BE sector it is growing – a survey last year showed 39% of BE companies considered ESG “very important” today but this rose to 81% when asked about 3-5 years in the future. As Sophie points out, there is a wealth of resources available to understand how this is likely to play out. As the BE advances to centre stage in the next election (and looks increasingly polarised between greenbelt and housing, nimby and yimby, pro-growth and no-growth) this would be a good time for all of us to develop a common language to discuss the real impact of building and regeneration in our local communities.

Clare Delmar

Listen to Locals

30 May 2023


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