It goes without saying that the impact of coronavirus on the development sector will be significant – not only the immediate, considerable and often unpredictable obstacles that we face today but for years to come. But the housing shortage won’t go away and new infrastructure is desperately needed.
An immediate impact of the coronavirus crisis is that many community meetings and exhibitions concerning planning applications will be cancelled – and quite rightly so. But despite a temporary ban on face-to-face contact, the industry can continue to involve people in future plans.
This week alone has brought about a rapid shift towards online communications in all walks of life. And changes to the ways in which we communicate will not be limited to the current lock-down: those that work well will be here to stay.
In planning, the absence of events can be met by online consultation, which is inexpensive and easy to put in place. And with so many social activities cancelled and people in lock-down, the audience is ready and waiting.
There are many reasons why developers increasingly choose to use online consultation:
- Research: A substantial proportion of information that is required in researching stakeholder groups and necessary background information is freely and readily available.
- Issues management: Monitoring sentiment towards a planning application online provides an immediate and effective means of understanding local views and identifying any misapprehensions.
- Immediacy: Information can be posted and responded to in minutes.
- Ease of access: Users can take part in an online consultation when and where they want – at home, on the move; day or night.
- Dialogue: Online consultation allows for real-time dialogue and an exchange of ideas in a variety of format.
- Removing hierarchies: Online consultation has no regard for social stratas. Online, particularly behind the veil of a username, individuals are more likely to voice opinions without fear of repercussions.
- Reaching ‘hard to reach’ groups: Many people – particularly commuters, families with young children, the elderly and disabled – are not easily able to attend events. Online consultation can be accessible in both its language and in the varied ways in which information is presented.
- Promotion: Social media, blogs and the local media online can assist in communicating messages quickly.
- Moderation: Both websites and social media can be monitored effectively.
- Analysis: Online communication can be very effectively analysed: comprising day-by-day website usage; average session times and bounce rates; analysis of the most popular pages; demographic information in relation to location, gender, age and interest; analysis of how people are reaching the website; results per poll / forum / survey / blog comment; maps to depict the location of respondents. Likewise qualitative analysis which combines a technical and human approach can be more sophisticated than offline analysis.
- Feedback: A consultation website, email and social media provide ideal means for communicating feedback.
Using online consultation can help to keep the industry moving, continue to address the housing crisis and avoid further harm to the industry.
Penny Norton is the director of PNPR and runs ConsultOnline, on online consultation service. Her book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide was published by Routledge in 2017 and Promoting Property: insight, experience and best practice is due to be published by Routledge in April 2020.