Communication with local residents isn’t complete when a school or university is granted planning consent – in many respects it’s just beginning. The local community – nearby residents, future pupils and staff and the wider community – will need to understand what’s proposed, will want to know the timescales involved, and may be interested to receive regular updates. Simultaneously the contractor may require the contact details of those in the immediate area, to inform them of road closures and major work on site. Importantly, contractors and developers and also will benefit from gaining the goodwill and support of local residents, and possibly the local media too.
Traditionally community relations during construction has largely been managed through newsletters, with some contractors organising viewing windows / platforms and perhaps site visits or exhibitions.
But as our use of online communication increases, these often costly and time-consuming methods can be replaced by something much simpler: a community relations website.
A typical community relations website may include a timeline, interactive Google maps, Q&As (to which users may contribute), regular updates on construction work and images. Time lapse photography is very popular, as are CGI fly-throughs of the future facility. Other useful information might include an introduction to the team with hyperlinks to each organisation’s own website – a great opportunity to inform local residents of sustainability initiatives, commitment to using local workers / suppliers and other corporate social responsibility initiatives such as apprenticeship schemes. External links, such as to the local education authority or academy trust and the Considerate Constructors Scheme are also popular. Finally – but perhaps most importantly – a website offers the opportunity for users to register their interest under a specific subject, be it in relation to construction updates, admissions or employment opportunities.
The internet and social media are changing the way we communicate in every context. Today over 60m individuals in the UK use the internet regularly and this is increasing by 1.5m each year. Online is the preferred method of communication for many people. More specifically, over 60% UK residents own a smart-phone or tablet. In public consultations and planning applications run by ConsultOnline, engagement via mobile devices is providing increasingly popular with an average of 78% of those taking part in online consultations choosing to do so using tablets and smart phones.
Our research has also shown online consultation to be particularly popular among younger age groups, working parents and commuters. Many traditionally ‘hard-to-reach’ groups can also find what they are looking for best through a website thanks to the opportunity to provide information using translations, large text and text-to-speech.
Online communication has the advantage of being available 24/7, and communicating new information can be immediate too.
As communication increasingly moves online, so too will community relations. Of course online community relations will not fully replace offline community relations entirely until 100% of any local community is able and confident to communicate online. In some circumstances and to some, a screen will never compensate for a human face but there are many advantages of online communication over offline communication: it provides the means to communicate unlimited positive and important information, it is extremely cost-efficient, it is fast and time-efficient, and it provides easy access to a wide range of information, in equally wide-ranging formats.
When the diggers arrive on site, most people will head straight to Google to get the information that they feel entitled to know. Rather than allow local residents to become frustrated at that crucial first point of contact, and resort to social media and chat rooms to speculate about the changes to their neighbourhood, the savvy developer will use this opportunity to provide a first – and long-term – impression that is welcoming, informative and constructive and establishes the new facility in the very heart of the community.
First published in Building4Education June 2015.
Penny Norton is the director of PNPR and founder of ConsultOnline. Her book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide is widely available, and two further books Promoting Property: insight, experience and best practice and Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice will be published by Routledge in 2020.