From the first planning meeting to the last construction vehicle leaving site, building benefits from positive communication with local residents. And as the way in which people’s approach to communication changes, so too should the construction industry’s.
The internet is changing communication in every context. Today over 90% households have internet access, 73% adults own a smart-phone and online is increasingly the preferred method of communication for many community groups.
Planning authorities are now required to post applications online, local residents discuss and debate development proposals via social media and in blogs, and the media gathers these views to inform news stories. Once the diggers arrive on site, local residents will head online to get the information that they feel entitled to know.
So no new scheme is without an online presence – irrespective of the developer’s intentions. And rather than allow chat fuelled by speculation and misinformation to dominate the online presence, savvy developers and construction companies are finding that websites present a great opportunity to communicate efficiently and cost effectively.
Whether in consultation or community relations, online communication should not take the place of offline communication, but can complement and enrich it. It can also reduce offline communication, and therefore overall costs.
In using online consultation in planning, I have found that communicating with residents via their preferred means significantly increases support. And the same is true of community relations during construction: when targeted via their preferred means of communication, people are more supportive of a scheme and understanding of any disruption.
Local residents appreciate online communication because they can get involved when and where they want, while technology can assist in making communication physically accessible for those who might find other forms of communication difficult.
Construction websites can convey a substantial amount of information about the scheme and its timeline, and provide links to newsletters which would otherwise be expensive to deliver to a wide area. A database of local residents who wish to be kept informed of progress provides a means for the contractor to get in touch easily and quickly regarding any road closures and major work on site.
A community relations website may include a timeline, interactive maps, Q&As (to which users may contribute), regular updates on construction work and images. Time lapse photography is very popular, as are CGI fly-throughs. Other useful information might include an introduction to the team with hyperlinks to each organisation’s own website – a great opportunity to inform local residents of sustainable features, commitment to using local workers / suppliers and other corporate social responsibility initiatives such as apprenticeship schemes. External links, such as to the Considerate Constructors Scheme are also popular. Perhaps most importantly, a website offers the opportunity for users to register their interest under a range of subjects, be it in relation to construction updates, sales and lettings or employment opportunities.
I am increasingly working with construction companies to develop and administer community relations online, which takes the day-to-day responsibility for local resident communication off the shoulders of the contractor in a way that is time (and therefore cost) efficient but also reassures the local authority that they have a dedicated service.
As communication increasingly moves online, so too will our contact with local residents. To some, a screen will never compensate for a human face and for that reason face-to-contact should remain. However, there are many advantages of online communication: it increases accessibility, it is clear and uncomplicated, and information can be readily available and visible to all. And using a website and social media alongside traditional means can reduce cost and time expenditure by half. It is no surprise that the development industry is increasingly choosing to communicate online.
Penny Norton is the director of PNPR and runs ConsultOnline, on online consultation and community relations service. Her book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide was published by Routledge in July 2017.