Building a legacy

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Posted by Jess Faulkner on 12th Feb 2017

Cooking meals for the homeless, setting up a science club in a school and helping a cash-strapped kids’ football team travel to the World Youth Cup are not what most people associate with a construction project.

But these are just some of the life-enriching schemes carried out as part of Crossrail’s ambitious Community Investment Programme. Hailed as the first of its kind for a major infrastructure project, the programme requires Crossrail construction contractors to donate their skills, time, money and expertise to bring lasting benefits to the communities in which they are investing.

Each contractor is required to provide a community investment plan customised to each specific community.

Ben White, Crossrail’s head of community relations, says its role begins at the bidding process: “The community relations team looks at every contract tender, and part of the evaluation of a bidding contractor is our assessment of its community plans. At this stage, we would expect it to lay out an approach to its community work, but we would understand that it would have a fair amount of research to do after it won the contract to fully develop it.

“Again, this evaluation at the bid stage is a first. It is not as high a priority in a bid as cost, value and quality, but it is important.”

It is very much up to the contractor to define what community work it will do.

White explains: “We expect them to get out to communities, talk to local organisations, and understand where their skills and experience can add value. It may not be the direct neighbour to the worksite; instead, it may be a school or charity a few streets back. They will have to work hard to properly understand the needs.”

Motivating factors

Why the deep focus on community relations? White cites legal obligation as the first reason, with the Crossrail Act 2008 requiring the project to be the best neighbour it can be.

“Second, it makes great sense to do community relations,” he states. “We strive to minimise disruption, keep people informed of the process and add value through projects. It means that businesses, schools and residential neighbours, as well as the local authorities that give us consent on a range of matters – such as planning or night-time working – will see us as a good, caring operator. If that is the case and we can build a permissive environment, then they are far more likely to let us do the job on time and on budget. Those are the pragmatic reasons – to get on with the job without much fuss.”

The third driver is a moral obligation. “We are spending nearly £15bn of the public’s money in the middle of where they are living and working. It is a multi-year job, so we have to do community relations well and mean it,” White says.

“Can we tap into something good from our contractors to help the community while they are carrying out the job? These are often deprived areas of London and, for not much capital investment, we could do some lasting good.”

The importance of legacy

A contractor’s project also needs to show a legacy element, White explains.

“When a contractor has finished its job, we want to see its projects run beyond the life of the contract. It is easy to spend £5,000 on painting a community centre, but what happens when it needs repainting? As a contractor, you need to think ‘What can I do that will mean this great scheme will continue well into the future?’ It’s a challenge, because it is easy to look around and find quick fixes. Even local organisations struggle to tell us what a long-term sustainable community scheme might look like.”

Starting in 2016, contractors have been obliged to create exit plans detailing how they intend to withdraw from their projects, keeping legacy firmly in mind. White says this work will be assessed in 2017 and continue the evaluation work developed since the start of Crossrail.

“We assess contractors across a range of criteria, including community investment and delivery strategy,” he says.

The criteria measure how much financial investment a contractor has put in and the hours it has given to the activity. Outcomes are also assessed, such as how many people have been employed after going to a contractor’s ‘getting back to work’ scheme.

“Contractors are then given a marked report,” White explains. “We sit down with them to see where they’ve been good and discuss sharing these ideas with other contractors. We also look at areas where they need to improve. There are no financial penalties for bad scores, but we do publish all the contractor results, and they can see how they stand against their competitors. That can be an incentive.”

Recognising the benefits

Crossrail’s approach raises questions about project managers’ attitudes to community relations, and how community work might affect the core job of construction.

“We have found that it can really engage a workforce. People come back from a reading class at a primary school enthused and energetic, and they put that back into their work,” says White. “Initially, some say ‘This is an add-on – do we really have to do it?’ But now the vast majority of project managers really understand the importance of getting on with the neighbours. They get the pragmatic and moral reasons for putting this into contracts. Many of them get personally involved in the schemes.”

Nigel Russell, project director at BBMV, the joint venture between Balfour Beatty, BeMo Tunnelling, Morgan Sindall and Vinci Construction that is delivering Crossrail’s new Whitechapel and Liverpool Street station tunnels, certainly has this enthusiasm. Over the past four years, BBMV has worked closely with homelessness charity Providence Row, creating two urban gardens (see box, left).

“The benefits from our work include leaving a contribution to London, a legacy after we’ve left, and the sense of pride it gives our workers,” Russell explains. “They are all volunteers; it is not compulsory to help the charity, and they get so enthused by it. It’s people from different walks of life coming together. From a project management perspective, it enhances the job that we do. There is no extra operational hassle, and it doesn’t take us away from our core work. All construction projects are developing this community involvement nowadays.”

Indeed, he says it is something his firm, Balfour Beatty, now does regularly on its major schemes.

Gaining momentum

Mark Williams, government finance expert at PA Consulting, agrees that these schemes are now commonplace: “Construction firms have long focused on their corporate and social responsibility. Crossrail sensibly packed it up in a specific way around a major project, a specific geography in London and a series of contractors. With major projects, if they were all purely commercial endeavours, then none would ever get completed. The whole thing is generally being done for social and economic benefits.”

From a project management viewpoint, Williams believes community schemes are invaluable: “You get to better understand the communities you are working with. You see colleagues working in a different way, and you see them bond.

“For a project manager, a community project will just be one of the added things they have to work on that gives them broader experience. If I were a project manager, I would identify a bright young junior project manager and let them manage it. It would help keep the best young talent highly engaged.”

Holly Price, training and development director at Keltbray, says her team helps its project managers handle community relations: “Project managers like to get involved and choose a local charity or school to help, but we then manage the process. Doing community relations can add to the work a project manager does, and sometimes it may be difficult for them to step out of their day-to-day job.

“We make the effort to engage with the community, which helps the whole project run more smoothly and the project manager get their core job done.”

She says local authorities and developers, not just London 2012 and Crossrail, are pushing community work forward. However, there is no national strategy.

“Local authorities have different priorities when they contractually require developers to make community investment,” Price says. “They may have homelessness or employment issues. We have to adapt to that and meet their targets, or face financial penalties. Assessments can include how many apprenticeships you created per millions of pounds, or how many training days you put on. It is a target, but we love it, and it gives our staff the chance to do something that isn’t written in black and white on their job description sheet.”

Template for the future

Williams picks up on the national point. He declares that he is a fan of Crossrail and urges the government to replicate such major schemes and their community impact outside London: “Let’s see something similar in other parts of the country where there are infrastructure demands, and economic and social needs.”

White is hopeful that there will be replication of the Community Investment Programme in future national projects.

“It genuinely is the right thing to do and makes for a better project, so any future project would be foolish to ignore it,” he states. “We are trying to share all the work we have done on Crossrail and are already engaged with HS2, the Thames Tideway Tunnel and Crossrail 2 on this. HS2 is requiring all of its contractors, just as we did, to carry out community investment as part of their contract. That’s because of what we have done.”

For more details, see crossrail.co.uk


 David Craik is a business journalist and editor


Digging the past

Crossrail claims that its archaeology programme is one of the most extensive ever undertaken in the UK. It employs a team of archaeological specialists to investigate and record findings.

Since the construction of the Elizabeth line began in 2009, 100 archaeologists have found more than 10,000 items from 40 sites spanning 55 million years of London’s history.

Items include horse skulls and gaming counters from Roman times, a 16th-century knife scabbard, bison bones, human remains from the infamous Bedlam psychiatric hospital, and a rare piece of amber, estimated to be 55 million years old.

Crossrail has disseminated the information on its finds to the wider archaeological community, with significant artefacts being provided to the Museum of London and the Natural History Museum.

Giving back

Over the past four years, BBMV has worked with homelessness charity Providence Row, whose main projects have involved transforming its previously unused courtyard and rooftop into urban gardens. Here, vegetables and herbs are grown for use by the charity’s catering trainees when they make meals for up to 50 rough sleepers every day. Homeless people can also wander through the garden and engage with nature.

BBMV has donated £40,000 to date to help supply the equipment, project management support and staff volunteers.

“We hadn’t specifically lined up a charity before we got the Crossrail contract,” explains BBMV project director Nigel Russell.

“We looked at the local area and found Providence Row, whose base was in the middle of our two work areas in Whitechapel and Liverpool Street. It works hard getting people off the streets, including re-education and employment support. It was a very interesting scheme.”

He says that one of the keys of the project is leaving a legacy after BBMV has gone. “It’s about spending the money smartly on a project that will continue to flourish into the future. The gardens will keep helping the charity and the homeless for years, and that is very satisfying.”

The scheme has also helped Providence Row attract other investors. “They’ve seen what we’ve done, read the articles and also want to get involved. It’s about breeding success,” Russell says.

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