The digitisation of the planning process is an opportunity to engage with groups historically excluded from planning - the disabled, ethnic minorities and the young – as well those who might wish to move in to an area, says Senior Planner Suzi Green.
We cannot rest on our laurels and allow planning to return to business as usual. Traditional public consultation methods, such as site notices, neighbour letters, flyering homes and village hall public exhibitions, naturally target homeowners who often have a vested interest in a development not coming forward.
We don’t sufficiently reach out to people who might want to move to a new development in the future and would want to influence what it looks like. We do not often stop to ask who should be consulted as part of an emerging planning application and how might they best be contacted.
During this pandemic we have seen a wide-spread digitisation of the planning process. Big changes have occurred, with Councils now using social media to publicise planning applications and the passing of legislation which allows virtual planning committees.
Planners must work within statutory parameters, so we must use some traditional means of consultation to ensure those who are not technologically competent remain engaged in the planning process, but we cannot simply revert back to how things were before the pandemic.
Our industry needs to change with the times and embrace technology. The level of access to the internet is underplayed. According to the Office of National Statistics, 93% of UK households had access to the internet and 9/10 adults used the internet at least once a week in 2019 [i]. This means that there is now real democratic reason to drag our heels. Recent digitisation is a big opportunity for the planning industry to reach a wider audience and do things differently.
Some best practice examples and suggestions include:
- Facebook and Twitter. We are already seeing ‘groups’ being used as places to publicise in-person consultation events. These websites should become more engrained as part of the consultation process for developers, Parish Councils and Local Councils. Targeted social media advertisements can be used to notify those that have been Googling places and searching for properties to buy in a certain area. Already housebuilders are utilising this as a tool for selling homes.
- QR codes at potential development sites or on flyers can link to a website or survey, and targeted social media advertisements could be triggered when you walk past a development site. More consideration needs to be given as to how these can become more mainstream as part of the consultation process.
- Home buyers register. Councils are already expected to have a custom and self-build register, could there not be a similar list for people that are looking to buy a house? This list could help to underpin a Council’s evidence base, but could also be used to inform people about public consultation exercises in areas that they are interested in.
- Dedicated consultation websites can showcase a scheme in a more engaging and accessible way. There have recently been some positive steps which have sought to bring public consultation events online. A number of large planning and communication consultancies have created virtual consultation portals centred around an interactive village hall. In framing the portal around a village hall context these consultants have sought to create a bridge between the existing and the digital for already engaged groups, however we need to move away from past conceptions of how consultation should look. The scheme itself should be the focal point, with key information signposted and relevant scheme visuals at the forefront. These systems also need to be designed in a way that enables mobile-friendly viewing. The ability to do this is increasingly wide-spread.
- Interactive masterplans. They allow people to drop pins and comment, encourage direct engagement with specific elements of a scheme – ideal for reserved matters applications.
- Online polls. They could test different development scenarios and public consultation responses can be collated digitally.
- Live stream Q&As or a chat function so that on-hand experts can remotely answer questions that visitors to a consultation website might have, similar to what would take place during an in-person event.
- 3D visualisations. Videos can present information in a way which is easy to understand and accessible to all.
The continued reliance on in-person public exhibition events has meant people who could not physically access the information - such as those with a physical disability, people at work and people that don’t drive or have poor public transport links – have been excluded. By putting information online it is available at the public’s convenience, rather than a snapshot in time, as is the case for a public exhibition. The internet as a medium of communication has the potential to reach more people.
The planning system is used to create the built form that we live in. This built form needs to represent the needs and interests of society as a whole. We cannot continue to exclude different groups when we consult.