The Show Must Go On

This article was published in PlacemakingResoruce on 30th March 2020 and can be found here (subscription required).

By Michael HardwareDirector of Planning and Property 

The development industry is pulling together so work can continue during the coronavirus restrictions. Efforts are being made to ensure the disruption caused to the housing supply is not too dramatic. That said, the industry, like almost all others, has been severely impacted. That impact may lessen as we settle into our new ways of working and realise what can actually be done without meeting or going into the office – we may actually, at long last, be forced to master the technology which has been at our fingertips all the time.

The housing market itself has been understandably curtailed by the virus. Viewings have almost stopped; site sales offices have closed and completions significantly reduced. This will probably only be temporary due to the significant and historic pent-up demand that exists in the economy. The market is, however, likely to be subdued for a number of months to come and there is likely to be a medium-term reduction of all house prices until we return to normal.

Local planning authorities are looking at ways for planning to continue. The law does not currently provide for virtual planning meetings; it requires a quorum of physically present members to make decisions. Some council constitutions provide for delegated and/or executive powers during times of emergency, but the government has promised a temporary change in the law to allow virtual meetings to take place. It is perhaps disappointing that this change will only be temporary – government is missing an opportunity here to revolutionise our local democracy. Perhaps six months of successful virtual meetings may make the change permanent.

If the planning process is set to continue largely uninterrupted, planning promotion must also carry on. Similarly, what is stopping local plans from also being progressed? An examination in public can quite easily be conducted online – in fact, it would probably work better that way.

But whether promotion into a local plan or consultation for a planning application, public consultation cannot involve any contact – out of the window goes any thoughts of exhibitions, door-to-door canvassing or on-street marketing.

Does that not defeat the purpose? No, the tools for ‘no contact’ consultation already exist and can be orchestrated and enhanced to provide effective consultation. In fact, most people are sat at home with time on their hands, desperate to find something useful to do – it may well be the case that participation in consultation increases and more of the usually silent majority who are neutral or actually supportive of development take part and make their views known.

The key obstacle to be overcome now is making people aware that consultation is taking place. Increasing and extending direct mail and online activity will reach a large proportion of the community, and repeating that communication over a period will improve the outreach further. The use of direct mail, email, social media and targeted online advertising will all help.

Having drawn them to a website, the whole consultation experience has to be different, more engaging. Detailed information which is accessible must be available. Interaction is key with the ability for residents to ask questions (which need to be answered in a timely way) and to provide their comments easily. The experience and the engagement can be improved by the use of features such as message boards, webinars, video podcasts, enhanced Q&A, live chat, surveys and support buttons.

There will, however, remain a number of people who do not or cannot access the internet. The direct mail will still reach them but they will not be able to respond. The provision of a telephone helpline and reliance on the postal service will be needed to ensure everyone has equal access to the consultation and able to respond and give their comments.

No contact consultation, if undertaken properly, is fully compliant with local authority requirements for properly engaging local communities. If it increases participation with more residents responding, it will surely be welcomed.

If these new ways of working and consulting do prove workable and successful in the coming months, they may well continue after the virus has been defeated.

Michael Hardware is director of planning and property at political consultants Chelgate Local. He is a serving county and district councillor, deputy cabinet member for economic development at Essex County Council.