Pandemic prompts rapid shift to digital consultation methods

The rapid shift to online platforms as a result of the pandemic has led to the vast majority of consultation professionals changing the way they engage with local communities on key projects.

A new report, from the Royal Town Planning Institute and Grayling Engage, explores how the pandemic changed public decision making, and what this could mean for the future. They found that 83 per cent of consultation professionals have changed the way they engage with local communities on key projects across infrastructure, housing, retail, energy, and health sectors.

Despite this move to online, 73 per cent of industry professionals who responded to the survey do not believe their team has the skills and tools they need to deliver effective digital consultation. In addition, two out of three professionals believe it’s possible to go ‘too far’ with digital engagement, suggesting there remains a firm need for face-to-face activity post lockdown.

As conversations that traditionally took place in town halls, libraries and other public spaces have moved online, 49 per cent of the general public said that having the ability to respond digitally as well as face-to-face would make them more likely to get involved in consultations, particularly with younger respondents (54 per cent of people aged 16-24 vs 43 per cent of those aged 55 and over).

Additionally, 53 per cent of the general public surveyed agreed that changes to local places, spaces and services will need to happen to adapt to life post pandemic – and that local people should be involved in these decisions.

The Royal Town Planning Institute and Grayling Engage say that this suggests digital engagement could be the key to unlocking participation from a larger, younger and more diverse cohort – which would help ensure the many decisions needed to help the country adapt after the pandemic more accurately reflect the needs of a rapidly changing society.

Sue Manns, president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, said: “I am delighted that the Royal Town Planning Institute and Grayling have come together to produce this timely report on the future of community engagement. It is vital that we capitalise on the renewed interest of communities in shaping the way places recover from the pandemic, and on new ways of reaching out to more people. The pandemic has shone a light on place based inequality, access to green spaces and local amenities, housing and how we travel around – whether that be for work or leisure.

“Planning will play vital role in delivering a holistic recovery which accelerates progress to a zero carbon economy, increases resilience to risk, and creates fair, healthy and prosperous communities. Local knowledge, which has been key in responding to the crisis, must be at the centre of this place-based approach to local decision-making. Planners should be resourced and ready to respond with inclusive and innovative ways of engaging people across society in shaping their future places.”