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A WEEK IS A LONG TIME IN POLITICS

They say a week is a long time in politics and its quite staggering to think that last Wednesday we were digesting news of the Budget, thinking that £30bn seems like an awful lot of money to fight coronavirus. Fast forward to this week and the Chancellor has well and truly upped the ante, pledging £330bn in loans to help businesses cope. Many of us in the built environment industry and other sectors are coming to terms with the fact that this new period of remote working is with us to stay for the foreseeable future.

USING OUR EXISTING TOOLKIT FOR THE SOCIAL DISTANCE AGE

People are beginning to adapt to the changing circumstances, have set up all sorts of home offices and are looking at how the projects can continue to be moved forward. We are working closely with our built environment clients determine how effective levels of engagement can be maintained whilst keeping faith in the consultation process.

In many instances, this means utilising tools which are already part of our toolkit. Our preference has never been to focus purely on consultation events in dusty village halls. We’ve always sought to think outside the traditional methods of engagement ensuring that the silent majority, and a wide range of the demographic, are able to have their say.

In the social distancing age however, this means a greater focus on that digital engagement offer. Interactive websites become the rallying point for engagement, supplemented by animations and walkthrough videos to show people what the development could look like.  There is also that opportunity to utilise a consultation chatbot allowing local residents and key stakeholders to give their consultation response online.

To provide information, consultation brochures can provide key details of development with an extensive set of FAQs and a Freepost feedback form. Of course, the important thing to remember is that many people want to have their questions answered. So, as well as providing that project email, establishing a consultation hotline will be an important step.

STILL A PLACE FOR TRADITIONAL CHANNELS

There is still of course a space for traditional channels of publication such as flyers, press releases and newspaper adverts, but rather than promoting physical events, they will advertise webinars with the project team to talk through the plans and provide an opportunity to ask questions. It’s also important to ensure that social media engagement is targeted effectively to encourage this engagement. This means pushing out those walkthrough videos and extracts of animations to provoke engagement but also ensuring that your social media is targeted geographically and by topic to ensure a wide level of participation.

For engagement with stakeholders this means picking up the phone, holding con calls and Skype for Business meetings to allow them to ask questions of the project team and provide an opportunity for us to talk through our plans.

LOCAL AUTHORITIES ARE RESPONDING DIFFERENTLY

The key consideration is how will local authorities respond to the current situation, as a breakdown in decision making on their part is going to have a major knock on impact for built environment professionals. The honest answer is that the response has been quite mixed, as we have seen councils such as Carlisle opting to suspend all committee meetings – including planning – and I gather than authorities are looking at following suit. This response could be expected as its fair to say that the average age of your local councillor puts them in the high-risk band for coronavirus.

However, this approach is by no means universal as the GLA and councils up and down the country, such as Warrington, are taking a more long-term approach with a move to hosting committee meetings online/remotely or adopting social distancing measures such as holding them in private session. I am sure there is also consideration being given to the expansion of officer delegation for planning, given the need to maintain decision making – ultimately officers are enacting policies which have been voted through by elected councillors.

As I said at the start of this blog, this period of remote working is likely going to be with us for the foreseeable future. We all need to play our part and adapt to the change in working circumstances but also stay healthy and look after your friends and colleagues!