Planning permission will break any potential hotel development but is widely recognised as being a bit of a minefield – perhaps more so than ever now public consultation is required for the majority of planning applications.
Added, to that local residents are becoming increasing aware of their role in the planning system and how they can influence hotel development in their area. Localism and neighbourhood planning – not to mention an enhanced media profile for the profession – have pushed community engagement up the public agenda.
But perhaps one of the most significant impact on the way we consult on a planning application is the internet.
The internet and social media are changing the way we communicate at every level, both personally and professionally. This increased significantly in 2004 when Web 2.0 changed enabled substantially more effective two-way communication. Facebook was also established in the UK in 2004 and Twitter followed in 2006. Today 60m individuals in the UK use the internet regularly and this is increasing by 1.5m each year. Additionally, over 60% owns a smart-phone or tablet.
In 2005 the Government required that local authorities and other public bodies ‘e-enable’ all services including planning, public engagement and consultation. As local authorities are now obliged to post all planning applications online, local residents can view planning application online. And as community groups and activists discuss and debate development proposals on Facebook, Twitter and in blogs, the local media can quickly gather residents’ views to inform online news stories, which then results in a further sequence of online engagement. Because of this, it is vital that every potential new development has an online presence.
ConsultOnline is the most comprehensive website and consultation service to date. It has many features of social media but from a planning perspective, many additional advantages. It uses wide-ranging and innovative tactics to inform and consult; is updated regularly throughout the consultation; is supported and promoted through a social media campaign (47% users of ConsultOnline websites find the consultation websites via social media) and is designed with the primary aim of providing extremely effective monitoring and reporting.
Improving access and engagement
Currently 12% planning applications fail to gain planning consent because of issues related to consultation – they’re just not sufficiently appealing or interesting.
Not everyone is free to attend an evening meeting in their local church hall to discuss a proposal for a new hotel. By communicating in the medium that is better suited to residents’ lifestyles and preferences, the likelihood of widespread engagement and support is increased.
My analysis reveals that the average age of residents taking part in an online consultation is 35 – 44: typically parents, who may also commute. 79% ConsultOnline users take part in consultations using smart phones or tablets and the vast majority choose to do so late at night.
Online consultation is also intellectually accessible – presenting information through various forms; and physically accessible – providing large type and translations as necessary.
We have a considerably expanded toolbox of consultation techniques thanks to the internet. The ConsultOnline service enables users to receive information in the form of text, images, video and web links, and to interact though polls, forums, picture boards, posting questions, and commenting on blogs and videos.
Timelines should allow for consultees to be informed and respond, and results collated, analysed and considered prior to a decision being made.
Online consultation has the advantage of being immediate, but programmes should not be shortened as a result. On the contrary, consultation can only take place if residents have been effectively targeted. Online, a message can potentially spread quickly, providing it is sufficiently compelling.
The days of informing the public on a hotel proposal and collating results at the end of the process is over. Online communication is ongoing, fast and responsive, enabling the consultor to become aware of, to understand, and to correct any misconceptions immediately.
In a busy public meeting, attendees frequently defer to a dominating character or group leader. Online, particularly behind the veil of a username, individuals are more likely to voice their opinions without fear of repercussions.
Wide-ranging and consistent promotion is key an accessible consultation. For this reason, communication via social media, blogs and the local media is a standard inclusion in any ConsultOnline campaign.
Improving truthfulness and transparency
Honesty and openness is key to all good consultations. This involves the consultor ensuring that the community has the material required to take an informed view without being inundated.
ConsultOnline seeks to provide an honest and open service by making content available to all and providing maximum information. Contributions are not vetted prior to appearing online (unless this is specifically requested by the developer), but are automatically checked for inappropriate language and spam. Residents are free to post questions and questions are responded to online. Forums are either open to all or are limited by postcode area at the developer’s discretion.
Improving reporting, analysis, evaluation and feedback
If done well, reporting and analysis will clearly reflect the community’s reaction to the development proposals and the way in which the planning application has been shaped as a result.
The ConsultOnline template website was built around the need for comprehensive reporting and can create reports which are both qualitative and quantitative, describe day-by-day website usage and behavioural statistics, and can be accessed at the touch of a button.
A consultation website also provides an ideal means for feedback.
Will online consultation replace offline consultation?
As communication increasingly moves online, so too will consultation. But online consultation cannot replace offline consultation entirely until everybody is able and willing to communicate online. A screen will never compensate for a human face and so some face-to-contact should remain. However, using online consultation alongside a traditional consultation can significantly reduce cost and time expenditure, as using a website and social media alongside an offline campaign can reduce offline tactics by half.
Ultimately communicating in a way that is appealing and engaging addresses the serious issue of consultation fatigue and in doing so, lowers the risk of your planning application from being rejected through lack of engagement.
First published in Hotel Industry Magazine May 2015