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Digital should become a permanent part of planning consultation process

Orbit Communications is sponsoring SFHA’s Communications Conference, taking place on 24 March. Ahead of the event, Account Manager Alastair Stewart has written a blog on why digital should become a permanent part of the planning consultation process.

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In March of last year, the Scottish Government temporarily suspended public consultation events for planning applications. By April, it had issued guidance for alternative web-based approaches to restart the process.

Orbit Communications has organised over 35 web-based public consultations since then. These have been for a range of planning applications as part of the Scottish pre-application consultation process.

There have been several key learnings, all suggesting that digital should become a permanent part of the planning consultation process. On average, our project websites receive at least between 500–7,000 visitors over a 21-day consultation window. Before Covid-19, even the most controversial projects would not get close to that number attending in person.

Gone is the myth that “only older people” are interested in local developments. These projects have demonstrated that an impressive 60% of those engaging are under 45.

Over 70% of web views came from mobile devices. A development consultation event was always a hard sell after a long day or bad weather. The evidence suggests that if a developer creates a website with remote chat functionality during set times, more residents will engage.

This is a critical evolution. Project consultants can speak to visitors through a two-way chat system, just as they would at a face-face community exhibition. These can be typed exchanges or webinars. Both give more opportunities to speak, engage, and leave feedback.

Digital consultation events (say between 15:00–19:00) allow the team to respond faster, pool their knowledge more efficiently, and keep track of key issues raised. Well-crafted digital exhibition boards and virtual exhibition rooms make information more accessible and easier to understand. Team members can also follow-up with visitors if any questions couldn’t be answered at the time.

Tackling digital exclusion will be a long-term challenge, and face-to-face exhibitions will always have a clear role to play. As digital is a new de facto ‘Covid norm’, it’s paramount to offer paper alternatives where requested. Indeed, while social media advertisements about an event are useful, nothing is quite as effective as QR-reader ready flyers through doors or a press release. A physical reminder of the event ensures it is not forgotten.

Coronavirus, social distancing and sadly, lockdown have made digital acceleration a necessity. It might also be the future for how communities engage with Scotland’s proposed developments. 

Will the public call for more of this? It seems critical to do so. It is a mistake to underestimate how this could transform engagement across Scotland.

Social media is replete with comments that people ‘were not consulted’ and ‘we’re not going to be listened to anyway’. Everything from build-to-rent schemes to hotels or purpose-built-student accommodation will be improved by greater engagement. Accountability is unavoidable and allows developers to better present information with videos, infographics and visuals.

Developers now have a remarkable array of methods to present their site proposals, answer questions, and record residents’ feedback. This is in everyone’s interests and has proven to be a huge success.

Digital is too often taken as a negative umbrella. In some cases, there is a legitimate fear that it cancels out the need for face-to-face engagement and will leave some people behind as a default. This is something that should and must be taken seriously.

But digital and face-to-face interactions are not mutually exclusive. With the future of planning consultations, it is clear they are both complementary, cast the net of opinion far wider, and allow people of all ages to comment on what is going on in their community. This can only be a good thing.

Orbit Director Graeme will be leading a workshop at the Communications Conference on ‘Digital tools: how to engage with staff and residents in the future’. He will also be taking part in the opening plenary session on ‘Lessons learned from communicating during the crisis’. 

SFHA’s Communications Conference is a virtual event, taking place 24 March. To view the full programme and book your place: please visit the SFHA Live! section 

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