If there is one thing we have all learnt over the past couple of weeks it is that, digitally at least, it is possible to be much closer to people than we maybe ever imagined.
Even my 83-year-old dad, safely tucked away in isolation, has “been to church” via Zoom on his iPad (now officially the best present we ever bought him) and joined in a Rotary Club “meet-up” with more than 100 others in the same way.
This rapid take-up of digital connectivity means that, for businesses too, it is possible to engage with communities like never before.
Not so many years ago, a pre-application consultation project would focus entirely on an exhibition or other form of public event. There would be venues to choose – not too small, not too far from the focus of the proposals, with parking and other facilities. There would be boards and information packs and feedback forms to print, hotels and train tickets to book, and so much more.
That was because of the need to demonstrate that the people potentially most impacted by a development project, those who live close to it, had a fair chance to learn more and be heard.
But here at KOR Communications we have, in recent years, been running hybrid physical and online exhibitions. Still targeting the relevant communities, we have found more and more that people are happy to engage online. In many consultations, the numbers of online participants can far exceed the physical attendees.
It is possible to run an effective, valid public consultation online without a physical event. We know because we have done it. There are many benefits to developers, not least that the timing is in their hands, not dependent on the availability of key personnel, councillors, venues and many other factors.
In these uncertain times, when we don’t know when we might be able to hold physical exhibitions again, it means that development projects can still make progress.
We know from talking to people in local authorities that they are determined to keep working, and councils are expecting to be able to hold decision-making meetings such as planning online under the latest regulations.
It is still necessary, of course, for project teams to follow sound principles of engagement before submission. We are guided by those set out by the Consultation Institute, as recommended by the Local Government Association.
The LGA’s latest Guide to Engagement emphasises: “When done properly, online consultation furthers the sound of public dialogue and is far more efficient than its offline older brother.”
Of course, for a consultation to be seen as valid, developers and their teams will still need to give consultees enough information to enable them to make a balanced decision. Proper consideration also still needs to be given to how best to reach those consultees.
So there is still much to be done in promoting, running and recording online consultations if they are to be done properly. But, rest assured, with the right team, it can be done.