Going digital is the way forward for planning - Alastair Stewart

In recent weeks the planning community's attention has rightly been focused on the Edinburgh Local Development Plan. And while this is critical, another seismic change has been quietly developing in the digital world.

Monday, 4th October 2021, 7:00 am
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant

The Scottish Government has announced a further statutory in-person event as part of the pre-application consultation process. Developers across Scotland must now present their proposals to the community at two in-person 'townhall' meetings.

Concurrently, some emergency Coronavirus modifications have been extended beyond the end of September 2021. In-person consultation events, which were suspended in April 2020, will remain so until April 2022.

I was part of the team at Orbit Communications that first helped deliver an alternative to town hall exhibitions in March 2020. The approach was formed from nothing less than a scramble to keep client projects moving as the first lockdown commenced. We were among the first to deliver entirely web-based planning consultations, where communities could view exhibition boards, speak to the team remotely, and comment online.

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Since then, Orbit Communications has delivered over 55 web-based consultations for planning projects across the country. In our experience, the process has overwhelmingly transformed how communities engage, voice their views, and keep up to date with proposed projects.

In April 2020, the Scottish Government chief planner advised property developers to look at digital methods as an alternative to physical community consultations. Two of our digital projects were named as best practice.

The cliche that "only older people" engage in consultation exhibitions is gone. On average, 60 per cent of those engaging are under the age of 45. That has flipped from the anecdotal stories about in-person town hall exhibitions.

After a long day, a development consultation event in a draughty town hall was always a hard sell for the community. The evidence suggests that more residents will engage if a developer creates a website with remote chat functionality during set times. Over 70 percent of web views came from mobile devices.

Project consultants can speak to visitors through a two-way chat system and webinar just as they would at a face-face community exhibition. Both give more opportunities to speak, engage, and leave feedback in a mobile-friendly way. Access is convenient, and in your own time, and from your own home.

Digital consultation events (say between 3-7 pm) allow the team to respond faster and keep track of critical issues raised. Digital exhibition boards and virtual exhibition rooms make information more accessible and easier to understand. Online makes it impossible to avoid hard questions, and there is ample opportunity to address community concerns head-on.

Tackling digital exclusion will be a long-term challenge, and face-to-face exhibitions will always have a clear role to play. It's paramount to offer paper boards and feedback forms when requested. A posted, QR-equipped leaflet is an important reminder to be pinned on the fridge door. A press release, social media, and newspaper advertisement complete the net of visibility.

In the future, it is maddening to think such opportunities for engagement will be lost. A hybrid combination of in-person and digital should be a statutory requirement. It represents one of the best lessons of COVID-19.

Too many times, developers are accused of not listening and avoiding feedback. Here is a proven system that works for communities and development teams.

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant