It was impressive to see local councils across the country embrace digital tools to ensure they could carry on working through the pandemic restrictions on physical meetings.
We all had a good laugh at the antics of Handforth Parish Council and saw super-clerk Jackie Weaver become an internet sensation, but without Zoom and Teams and the like, vital business could have ground to a halt.
Putting council meetings online made them much more open to the public, the people the councils are, after all, working for. Even as councillors are once again formally gathering in person, many authorities are continuing to stream meetings, which can only increase openness and visibility.
One of the aspirations of the latest Planning White Paper is to see a concerted move towards digital planning, with much the same aim. As Housing Minister Christopher Pincher MP said: “While the current system excludes residents who do not have the time to contribute to the lengthy and complex planning process, local democracy and accountability will now be enhanced by technology and transparency.”
Now, 10 local authority areas have won bids to be the first to trial a programme to look at the digital transformation of local plans, aiming to increase community involvement and speed up the planning process.
Here at KOR we have been using digital tools alongside, and in some cases instead of, traditional public consultation and engagement events for years.
Digital-first consultations capture the opinions of a much wider community. Our internal monitoring has shown that the demographics of participants in online consultations also match those of the target community much more closely, demonstrating that we have been able to reach people who might not normally have the time to attend physical events.
That means young people – those with a greater stake in the future and perhaps less resistant to change – are taking part online when previously they didn’t in person.
In some cases, we’ve seen participation rates increase five- or even tenfold compared to “traditional” events, because people can take part at a time and a place which suit them.
The outcome of such consultations is much more representative of the whole community, rather than largely of people who have the time to spare and the inclination to use it.
So we’ll be watching what happens in the digital planning trial areas with interest and seeing how our findings compare.
The councils and groups taking part are: Newcastle City and Gateshead councils; Stratford upon Avon and Warwick councils; Plymouth, South Hams and West Devon councils; Dacorum; Broxbourne; Birmingham; East Suffolk; Hounslow; Kensington and Chelsea; and Ashford.
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