But the latest message from the Government is clear, it expects “everyone involved in the planning process to engage proactively” to enable the delivery of housing and economic growth that will support the UK’s economic recovery.
In the Government’s daily televised briefing on 13th May, housing secretary Robert Jenrick called on councils to make more use of digital technology to deliver momentum in the planning process. He also directed the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) to “make all hearings virtual within weeks”.
Since an amendment to the Coronavirus Bill has enabled Council planning committees to meet virtually, many authorities have been quick to adapt. Some, including Manchester City Council, have been using delegated powers to streamline decision-making during the disruption.
Yet for many developers, architects and project managers the question of how to carry out meaningful public consultation and stakeholder engagement during the disruption is causing some consternation.
It’s clear that social distancing will be in place for a long time yet, meaning public congregations of any scale will not be on the cards. Yet consultation will remain an important part of delivering legitimacy to the planning process. Developers will still need to show that they have done enough to ensure an inclusive audience has had the chance to understand and comment on their proposals.
The answer is using digital tools to deliver the same engagement and transparency as physical forums and meetings.
At Influential we’ve been using online and remote-access tools to deliver effective and engaging public consultations for many years. From small residential schemes through to SRF’s and major infrastructure projects, digital channels have helped us to attract and engage target audiences and to capture and analyse robust data.
In fact, we’ve often seen digital channels deliver higher response rates than their physical counterparts. A case in point is our experience advising Everton Football Club on the record-breaking consultation for the People’s Project – its proposals for a stunning new stadium on Liverpool’s waterfront and the community-led regeneration of Goodison Park.
We used a wide variety of integrated on and offline channels to drive awareness and participation. While public events were a fantastic source of excitement for the project, our analysis of response rates to the consultation survey showed a preference for respondents using online channels to provide feedback. We found that even among those who attended the roadshows, many preferred to go away, digest what they had learned and then respond with their considered feedback online.
In the context of social distancing, the technology available to developers means it’s entirely possible to replicate the experience of a public exhibition online, using microsites and rich content like videos, audio descriptions and animations.
Of course, inclusivity is a key consideration. When consulting we must make sure that every effort has been made to engage widely and with hard to reach groups.
The geo-targeting functions of the prominent social media channels allow us to target people by location, helping to drive awareness and participation among priority audiences. Mail drops are still a viable tool to reach those who may lack access to the internet, particularly if they are backed by the option to call helplines and dictate feedback to a member of the consultation team.
Our approach to different audiences must be bespoke, but again digital tools can deliver this. Focus groups can still be delivered virtually. Interactive webinars are an effective way of engaging with statutory stakeholders, key individuals and groups where more intimacy is needed.
Our ways of working may be disrupted but the wheels of the planning process still need to turn. By exploiting digital channels, there is no reason why social distancing should prevent the property industry from effectively engaging with stakeholders and bringing plans to fruition.
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