In the epicentre of a crisis, looking to the future can seem both pointless and worrying. But longer term, challenges can create positives – consider the career opportunities for women following WW1 and the establishment of the NHS following WW2.
The potential impact of coronavirus on the development sector is significant, not just today but long, long term. But the housing shortage won’t go away, new infrastructure is desperately needed and despite a temporary ban on face-to-face contact, there are huge benefits in involving people in future plans.
An immediate impact of the coronavirus crisis is that many community consultations on planning decisions will be cancelled – and quite rightly so.
But simultaneously the crisis is changing the way in which we are using the internet to communicate – whether for family gatherings hosted by Skype, music lessons on Zoom or training webinars. Changes in the ways in which we communicate will not be limited to the current lock-down: those that are shown to work will be here to stay.
In planning, the absence of community meetings can be met by online consultation, which is inexpensive and easy to put in place. And with so many social activities cancelled and people in lock-down, the audience is ready and waiting.
There are many reasons why developers increasingly choose to use online consultation:
- Research: The internet is by far the most powerful research resource. A substantial proportion of information that is required in researching stakeholder groups and necessary background information is freely and readily available.
- Issues management: A constructive consultation is based on the community having access to reliable information, which can be easily sourced online. Monitoring of online consultation provide an immediate and effective means of understanding local sentiment and identifying any misapprehensions.
- Immediacy: Online consultation has the advantage of being immediate: information can be posted and responded to in minutes. But consultation timelines should not be shortened as a result. On the contrary, immediate communication can only take place if the audience has been targeted and is in receipt of the message. Online communication can potentially spread quickly but only if the message is strong and compelling.
- Ease of access: Online communication is a medium in which many people choose to communicate and by targeting residents via their preferred means, the likelihood of involvement is increased. Users can take part in an online consultation when and where they want – at home, on the move. Many chose to do so late at night. Because of its increased accessibility, online consultation has the power to reach new audiences – particularly the young and the time-poor. Local authorities welcome developers’ inclination to consult more widely; simultaneously this enables developers to unearth the support of the ‘silent majority’.
- Dialogue: Online consultation allows for real-time dialogue and an exchange of ideas on a one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many basis.
- Removing hierarchies: Online consultation has no regard for the limiting social stratas that we impose on ourselves. In a busy public meeting, for example, attendees may defer to a dominating character or group leader. Ultimately those members are not adequately represented, despite their presence. Online, and particularly behind the veil of a username, individuals are more likely to voice opinions without fear of repercussions, while personal details remain confidential but are accessible to the local authority as a confidential appendix to the consultation report.
- Reaching ‘hard to reach’ groups: Many people – particularly commuters, families with young children, the elderly and disabled – are not easily able to attend consultation events. Online consultation provides an alternative, accessible means of engagement. Online consultation can be accessible in both its language and in the varied ways in which information is presented.
- Promotion: Social media, blogs and the local media online can assist in communicating messages quickly.
- Moderation: Both websites and social media can be monitored effectively. The way in which a consultation is to be moderated should be determined at the start and ideally communicated via a user guide to ensure consistency. For example, it should be decided in advance whether user generated content is to be vetted before appearing and if so, on what basis comment might be withdrawn.
- Analysis: Online communication can be very effectively analysed: comprising day-by-day website usage; average session times and bounce rates; analysis of the most popular pages; demographic information in relation to location, gender, age and interest; analysis of how people are reaching the website; results per poll / forum / survey / blog comment; maps to depict the location of respondents. Likewise qualitative analysis which combines a technical and human approach can be more sophisticated than offline analysis.
- Feedback: A consultation website, email and social media provide ideal means for communicating feedback.
Using online consultation can help us to keep the industry moving, continue to address the housing crisis and avoid job losses.
Another long-term prediction I have for the post-coronavirus renaissance is a strengthening of communities. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I predict that when the crisis is over we will be only too pleased to replace an evening in front of a DVD with a round in the local pub. Likewise those who have offered or received community support will have renewed faith in their communities. From a planning perspective, I anticipate higher levels of involvement in decisions that impact on our neighbourhood, especially where community facilities are proposed. I will welcome the resumption of community meetings and public exhibitions, but I also see a continuing role for online consultation in complementing face-to-face communication.
Penny Norton is the director of PNPR and founder of ConsultOnline. Her book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide was published by Routledge in 2017 and Promoting Property: insight, experience and best practice is due to be published by Routledge in April 2020.