Is virtual public consultation the future?

Darren Parker, Operational Director for Planning, discusses some of the main benefits of virtual consultation and asks the question – why would we go back?

The COVID-19 pandemic and specifically social distancing forced the rapid modernisation and digitisation across industries. This shed a light on the archaic processes in the planning system and the legislative barriers that needed to be addressed quickly if development projects were to keep moving.

In early April the governments granted temporary new powers for local authorities in England and Scotland to hold public meetings virtually. Wales and Northern Ireland followed suit by May. Crucially, for the development industry this meant that planning committees were free to determine applications remotely.

Across the United Kingdom pre application consultation has become a common feature for property and infrastructure projects. A common feature of the pre application consultation is a public exhibition. In other words, a public gathering that couldn’t take place. By June the relaxation of the requirement to hold a public event or make an application available at a public venue prompted the opportunity to progress planning applications to the point of submission.

In April we launched our virtual public consultation platform to help our clients remove barriers, progress approvals and connect with stakeholders virtually. The response to this has been so overwhelmingly positive - creating value and ease for our clients and their audience - that it begs the question – why would we go back?

Better insight enables better decision-making

The data and insight that can be gained from a virtual consultation far surpasses what is possible in the traditional forum. To me this makes it a no brainer. By taking the public exhibition online our clients can benefit from deeper insights about the thoughts and interests of the local community; enabling better decision-making.

For example knowing which boards have been the most visited, and the time spent engaging with each, can strengthen the feedback received to inform the final design changes.

Re-balancing the consultation process

Virtual consultation may provide the opportunity to re-balance the age-old bugbear of the process. Often the most driven to participate in a public exhibition are the opposers to a scheme. Supporters as well as neutral members of the community tend to be more passive. Equally challenging can be an over-representation of certain demographics, for example the older more time rich generation. Both of these factors can risk a bias in the feedback.

Inciting engagement from time-poor groups and a broader demographic can prove challenging where a physical attendance is required, but by removing the need to attend in person we are reducing the time commitment for participation. This is important as it increases the likelihood that a wider audience will engage and encourage a more balanced response.

Inclusivity and accessibility

Inclusivity and accessibility sit at the heart of the consultation obligation. The opportunity to feedback needs to be fair, timely and transparent.

A virtual public consultation can prove to be a more accessible option for some demographics of the community, including those with reduced mobility who may struggle to attend a traditional event.

For those with busy lifestyles a defined timeslot on a certain date can be too restrictive. In today’s digital world people are used to consuming information on-demand wherever and whenever they choose. With close to 9 in 10 adults owning a smart phone in 2019, as reported by Deloitte, people are used to having information at their fingertips.

A virtual exhibition makes participation easy and accessible in the way that large demographics expect; enabling the community to communicate directly with the applicant in the way that they want to communicate.

Of course the approach has to be balanced to mitigate negative accessibility impacts for groups without access to the internet. We have been supporting clients to bolster their online consultation with offline channels including postal and phone consultations.

Is virtual public consultation the future?

All of the above, combined with the time and cost efficiencies from both client and consultant side, makes a pretty strong case. 

Want to join the conversation? Register to be the first to hear when our upcoming webinar becomes available to book ‘Virtual public consultation – short-term fix or long-term proposition?’

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