Guest article: Reflections from a virtual world
All it took for the development industry and local authorities to embrace digital technologies was a global health pandemic.
For years video conferencing and online engagement options have been available to support the planning process (something discussed in this 50 Shades of Planning Podcast from September 2019) but for various reasons (cost, fear of a lack of control, skills, tech availability) take-up has been slow.
But as a council leader told us during a recent webinar on the impact of the pandemic on planning and development “the genie is out of the bottle”. She went on to say:
You can’t use this technology, show people it exists, demonstrate that it is actually really convenient and positive, and then when we are able to return to some sort of normality, say ‘well you saw the future, you’ve seen all the technology, now we are just going to take it away’.
Since March, BECG has either delivered or is in production with over 30 virtual consultations across the UK, from new housing to supermarkets, nuclear power stations to plastic recycling facilities. What is clear is that assumptions many made in the pre-lockdown era about a community’s willingness to engage online about development in their area no-longer seem to hold.
When grandparents are Zooming their grandchildren, kids are being taught in virtual classes and many more people are using the internet to shop; the barrier to them participating in a virtual planning consultation has now disappeared.
Participation rates are far greater than more traditional village hall type engagement processes, including:
- Over 1,500 people for a new discount supermarket
- Over 500 people for a proposed airport hotel
- Over 200 people for a plastics recycling facility in the middle of nowhere
But it is equally clear that real interaction between an applicant and a host community must form a key part of any online consultation process and that badging a website as a consultation no longer cuts the mustard (see recent Place North West story here). This is something that the Scottish Government has also picked-up in its latest guidance about pre-application consultation.
That is why we recommend interactive ‘live chat’ sessions as part of any virtual exhibition with additional opportunities for affected residents or elected representatives to directly interact with a project team via one-2-one virtual meetings or webinars.
There will always be some people who are unable to participate online and for that reason more traditional forms of consultation will always be part of the mix. Postal consultation packs, telephone surgeries and, when possible, face-2-face engagement either at a village hall or on a one-2-one basis, will continue to be needed.
With the country in recession and potentially significant planning reform coming down the track, it is vital that applicants and local authorities use the tools and powers that are now available, to allow more people than ever before to meaningfully participate in the planning process.
Greater participation online makes it harder for pressure groups to claim that they are the voice of a local community and makes it easier for those who want to see investment in their area to make their voices heard.
Virtual planning committees that are open to anyone to join should also lead to better decision making with more light shone on proceedings and recordings available to download for posterity (or an attentive QC).
There is no going back to the way things were. Welcome to the virtual world.