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Guest article: 2020: The year digital went mainstream

In March of last year, the Scottish Government temporarily suspended public consultation events for planning applications. By April they had issued guidance for alternative web-based approaches to restart the process. 

Orbit Communications has organised over 30 web-based public consultations since then. These have been for a range of planning applications as part of the Scottish pre-application consultation process. 

There have been several key learnings, all suggesting that digital should become a permanent part of the planning consultation process. Our project websites generally receive at least between 300-500 visitors over a 21-day consultation window. Before COVID-19, even the most controversial projects would not get close to that number attending in person. 

Gone is the myth that “only older people” are interested in local developments. These projects have demonstrated that, on average, an impressive 60 per cent of those engaging are under the age of 45. 

Over 70 per cent of web views came from mobile devices. A development consultation event was always a hard sell after a long day or bad weather. Now the evidence suggests that if a developer creates a website with remote chat functionality during set times, more residents will engage.

Project consultants can speak to visitors through a two-way chat system, just as they would at a face-face community exhibition. These can be typed exchanges or webinars. Both give more opportunities to speak, engage, and leave feedback. 

Digital consultation events (say between 3-7pm) allow the team to respond faster, pool their knowledge more quickly, and keep track of key issues raised. Digital exhibition boards and virtual exhibition rooms make information more accessible and easier to understand. Team members can also follow-up with visitors if any questions couldn’t be answered at the time. 

A QR-equipped leaflet delivered to the surrounding area supports the net cast by a press release, social media and a newspaper advert. A physical reminder of the event ensures it is not forgotten about. 

Everything from build-to-rent schemes to hotels to purpose-built-student accommodation will be improved by greater digital engagement. Tackling digital exclusion will be a long-term challenge, and face-to-face exhibitions will always have a clear role to play. It’s paramount to offer paper boards and feedback forms when requested. 

Coronavirus has made digital acceleration a necessity, but it might also be the future for how communities engage with Scotland’s proposed developments.  

Developers now have a remarkable array of methods to present their site proposals, answer questions, and record residents’ feedback. This is in everyone’s interests and has proven to be a huge success. 


This opinion piece was written by Alastair Stewart. Alastair is a public affairs consultant at Orbit Communications. Read more about Orbit’s work delivering digital consultations at Get in touch at:  / 07384466323.

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