Waterfront webinar explores the future of online consultation in a post-COVID world

As the UK entered its fourth week of lockdown, Freshwater’s executive director, John Underwood, chaired a vital industry debate yesterday (21st April) around digital consultation and engagement for major infrastructure projects. Senior consultant, Antony Jones, logged on.

Freshwater’s sister company, Waterfront, was recently forced to postpone its 8th annual Consultation and Stakeholder Engagement for Infrastructure conference until later this year, and it was little surprise that the replacement webinar attracted a strong following. The virtual gathering attracted more than 80 live participants, as representatives from local authorities, various transport and infrastructure bodies, property developers, legal and consultancy firms joined the interactive debate.

Waterfront brought together a panel of experts, which included infrastructure lawyer Liz Dunn from Burges Salmon, who is currently advising on the new nuclear project at Bradwell in Essex. Liz was joined by software developer Mike Saunders, whose platform Commonplace has recently been used to consult on major schemes in Leeds, Waltham Forest and Lewisham and James Sachon, whose infrastructure consultancy AECOM has developed a ‘virtual village hall’, within which developers and project promoters can host online public consultations.

The challenge

The webinar covered a lot of ground in 90 minutes, from the ability of developers of Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) to deliver the commitments previously made in their legally-binding Statements of Community Consultation, to the challenges of engaging with hard to reach groups using digital platforms under the current COVID-19 restrictions.

From a legal perspective, it is only the Town & Country Planning Act as it applies to Scotland that overtly states that physical public exhibitions should be mandatory for major developments – although this has since been amended to reflect the current social distancing measures. Other consultation measures impacting projects in England and Wales, such as the requirement to put up site notices and leave hard copies of development proposals ‘on deposit’ for interested parties to review, are also being looked at in the light of COVID-19.

The difficulty for NSIPs is that once a Statement of Community Consultation has been agreed with the relevant authorities, the requirements are set in stone. Where statements refer specifically and in detail to public gatherings, developers face a decision between delaying the project, or going back and revisiting the consultation strategy and seeking a new agreement. No doubt many will be wondering why they had chosen to be so prescriptive at the outset.

The three ‘pillars’

Mike Saunders, CEO of Commonplace, talked about what he saw as the three ‘pillars’ of online engagement – people, trust and insight. Digital engagement has historically been used as an add-on to traditional engagement, to expand the depth and breadth of its reach and engagement. When Commonplace was used to engage on the redevelopment of an area of Leeds city centre, it attracted interest from more than 100,000 people, with around 20,000 providing some degree of feedback through the platform. Mike credits the recent phenomenon of ‘social proof’ – how seeing other people interacting online makes someone more likely to join in – as one of the ingredients of success.

AECOM’s virtual village hall was also created to help developers engage with those who wouldn’t typically turn up to a physical event, for a range of possible reasons. The software effectively allows developers to recreate a public exhibition online, where visitors can browse detailed plans, read information, watch videos and leave feedback for the development team. The virtual exhibitions can also be programmed with specific opening hours, during which visitors can direct questions to individual development experts and get answers in real time, via a LiveChat facility.

Digital engagement has also been shown to be an important tool in helping developers build trust with the stakeholders and communities within which they are hoping to build. It is essential that this trust can be won early on in a project, and therefore the open and transparent nature of online consultation – where participants can see and hear what others are saying about a project – can help to achieve this. One project went ‘live’ on Commonplace after a significant degree of opposition had already been established. However, after a period of consistent engagement, the team was able to engage consultees in a structured debate, which started around the evidence of need for the project, and the relationship moved from a ‘combat’ situation, to one of tentative collaboration.

Online consultation in practice

Participants in the webinar asked whether designing major schemes in collaboration with communities was possible and practical through online engagement, and also whether legal challenges were more likely when developers use online methods of consultation. The panel agreed that the best approach is still likely to involve a combination of new and old techniques, online and face-to-face engagement – once the latter is possible again. Online consultations must be wide ranging and well-planned, with sufficient time allowed for consultees to engage consistently over time, rather than one-off ‘polls’ on a limited choice of options.

Examples of consultations where developers had adopted a ‘digital first’ approach, with online engagement supplemented by telephone hotlines and paper copies of reports and proposals, were singled out for praise. AECOM cited an innovative project for Highways England, where the sound of traffic noise was ‘digitally re-mastered’ to demonstrate the difference between two different types of possible mitigation measure.

Looking ahead

The level of insight gathered by developers who employ effective online engagement techniques is growing, meaning they can not only demonstrate to authorities that feedback is representative of the views of the wider population, but can also use that insight to inform better decision making. Where engagement starts early, with a goal of reaching and shared understanding of needs, the path through the planning process is also likely to be easier, especially for larger and more controversial projects.

The crisis facing the UK has had disastrous consequences, with families losing loved ones and businesses facing stark choices. But it has also shown some of the best in people and brought communities together. Whether the way project promoters consult with those communities will change in the future remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that technology is enabling us to engage more effectively. It is now down to us to decide to how we use that ability.

“Conducting digital consultation and engagement – what technologies and techniques can be used?” was delivered via Webinar on Tuesday 21st April at 10:00am.

To stream the webinar click here.