Thankfully, the planning industry has rallied really quickly to enable this vital sector to keep rolling forwards.
It hasn’t been a smooth journey of course. Council meetings have been Zoom-bombed, and we’ve all had to scramble to learn unfamiliar technologies, juggle competing demands on our time or hunt down missing information stored in the personal files – or even heads – of furloughed colleagues.
There has also been the much discussion about how valid or even ethical it is to hold virtual consultations, with pioneering developers being accused of ‘sneaking through’ unpopular applications at a time when many are deactivated, distracted or distressed.
Undaunted, we embarked on what we believe to be the first virtual consultation in the South West, determined to make it valid AND ethical.
The programme centred around a digital exhibition, with the usual range of information and feedback materials for public and stakeholder consumption. We held it across three days (and two nights) instead of the usual single day to allow people to digest and discuss the proposals before asking questions or completing a feedback form. As we always do, we used a combination of PR, social networking and advertising to promote the event widely, and we remained available to take questions and feedback by phone and email, and social media – night and day for the event period!
To ensure we compensated for those who aren’t online, or comfortable with technology, we posted summary information and feedback forms to a wider-than-normal catchment area. Where businesses were closed, we tracked down the home addresses of proprietors. We also spent additional time presenting information to community groups and other key stakeholders via various combinations of post, phone, email and video conferencing, and created shareable information and event promotion materials they could forward to and discuss with their networks.
It was far more intense than a traditional consultation and engagement programme, but we were rewarded with an extremely high response rate.
It was also a sharp learning curve – about technologies, procedures and the different ways in which people engage, absorb and react online compared to in the real world. We’ve gained invaluable insights and ideas we might not have without this unique experience, which will certainly enhance the way we manage engagement programmes in the future – whether in the virtual or physical world. This can only be good for us, our clients and their target stakeholders.
So, if you’re considering a consultation in lockdown – or even beyond – do get in touch!