Virtual paves way for real world building

By Scott Harker, Consultant, Newgate Engage

Yesterday’s announcement that planning meetings and consultation should proceed digitally will see a system which has been notorious for its slow pace of reform catapulted into the 21st Century.

Whilst it’s been permitted for some aspects of the process to be carried out virtually, in practice physical meetings in windowless rooms of council offices have stubbornly remained the norm.  Adding cost, inconvenience and low-grade coffee to the menu both for those consulting and the consultees.

But we can now look forward to virtual Local Plan hearings and consultations publicised through social media rather than leaflets and notices in newspapers. Of course, there’s concern that some parts of the community will be excluded by this switch.  It’s true that not everyone has access to the internet or social media – but equally many people don’t have the time to attend physical meetings or don’t see notices in newspapers. So this is the next logical step on a path that has already started with councils switching to digital planning committees.

As we see this Covid-enforced acceleration towards digital, so far the Government’s advice has been well-heeded and, in our experience, effective. There have been a few hiccups, take South Somerset Council’s experience of allowing the public to share audio and video content during its first Zoom planning committee meeting. That decision failed to take account of the antisocial antics of some individuals and resulted in adult content being broadcast by an attendee and the temporary suspension of the meeting. With experience (and the right security settings) however, such incidents are being eradicated as authorities gain a better grasp of the technology and processes needed to manage such events. 

There is a similar – and growing – expectation on developers to adopt similar techniques to engage with stakeholders.

The live webinars we run to present development proposals alongside public Q&A sessions have been well attended – and constructive. Geographically targeted social media advertising campaigns are proving to be at least as effective as a newspaper advert in encouraging participation and engagement.

Holding an audience’s attention means being concise: selecting the relevant information, keeping the presentation brief and maximise Q&A time to retain the interactivity of a traditional public event. We’re finding that if you get this right, stakeholders really appreciate the effort you’ve put in.

Amongst the ongoing gloom it is heartening to see how the sector is adapting so quickly, keeping those essential infrastructure and housing projects that the country desperately needs on track. We’re going to need jobs – lots of them – when we are through this pandemic and construction can lead the way.