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Online consultation shouldn’t leave anyone behind

21st May 2020 By John Quinton-Barber
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While many activities have ground to a halt during lockdown, local democracy is not one of them. Thanks to an announcement by government during the second week of lockdown, councils have been granted permission to hold planning meetings remotely using teleconferencing technology.

The aim was to maintain transparency in local decision making, but the move to virtual consultation has not exactly gone smoothly, with critics branding the experience ‘more doom than zoom’.

For some local authorities, the problems have been of a technical nature. South Somerset Council was Zoombombed by porn, for example.  But others have been accused of abusing the process and passing controversial decisions behind closed doors.

Growing criticism has seen several groups including The Campaign to Protect Rural England and London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies issue a joint statement warning that changes to councils’ planning processes could lead to “long term damage to communities and the environment”.

“We are calling on Councils to widen participation, not find ways to weaken it,” said Lucy Rogers of Just Space, one of the groups featured in the joint statement. The groups have subsequently called for local government to strengthen their commitment “to safeguard the role of local communities in the planning process” by adopting best practice, reliably live streaming virtual meetings and reaching out to disadvantaged communities.

Civic Voice has also voiced “reservations” about the fact that “some Statements of Community Involvement may be updated without involving the community” – and it’s clear that local authorities need to do more to increase confidence in socially distanced consultation.

So what should they do? Well, to begin with, there is a wealth of emerging good practice to draw from. From online consultation rooms to virtual charrettes, there are lots of great tools to facilitate public participation. In many ways these are more inclusive, because people often can’t attend physical meetings because of busy work and family schedules.  Good use of social media to drive people to new plans is also key, as is the need to reach those without internet access through more targeted methods such as telephone calls and writing.

But ultimately, we should do well to remember a simple truism; plans made with the communities they affect are most likely to be successful if people feel heard and invested in them. And the current climate has arguably never been better to engage with local people given the renewed sense of community spirit we have seen throughout the pandemic.

If the explosion of local WhatsApp groups, neighbourhood quiz nights, activities to support the most vulnerable in our communities and weekly ‘clap for our carers’ tradition teaches us anything, it’s that community spirit is very much alive and well.

And we ourselves at Social are looking to capture that community spirit and are already working with developers to support and engage communities and stakeholders by ensuring activity continues.

In the next few weeks will be undertaking what we are sure is the first ever, fully digital consultation exercise for one of the largest garden town schemes in the UK.

This has required a fully interactive website to become a rallying point for engagement, supplemented by a walkthrough video to show people what the development could look like. At the same time, we are holding a series of webinars to fully engage the local community about the scheme changes before a planning application is submitted. We want to make sure that all voices have an opportunity to engage and truly shape the proposals.

Much of the response to the Covid-19 crisis has been delivering at a hyperlocal level – with neighbourhood level groups springing into action to do everything from stitching face coverings and PPE for the NHS to distributing thousands of meals to vulnerable people.

It’s this rich seam of social capital that local authorities need to mine if we’re going to truly ‘build back better’ and move beyond business as usual.

And that will require more consultation, not less.

Technology should not be seen as a makeshift measure to keep the planning process moving, but as the first step towards a bigger, more inclusive conversation to strengthen local democracy and communities.