There is no denying that 2020 will be a year that we all remember. A large part of this will be the hours spent working at home, turning dining rooms into offices and kitchen tables into pop up workspaces – alongside the need the need to develop strong and reliable methods of communications for us as individuals. Running parallel to this has been a message from business, a need to keep up engagement with communities on the cusp of new planning applications. As potential new developments began their early phases of life across the country, there was a real focus on continuing this strand of work, including from local authorities keen to see developers bring forward plans for their areas.  It was important to keep up momentum, keep communities engaged, and deliver new forms of stakeholder consultation for our clients. Being available and accessible to all remained one of the key touchstones of a successful consultation, including in the new digital engagement era.

Throughout the year, we have worked with multiple clients to find solutions and tailored stakeholder communications approaches to the nationwide restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. By understanding the possible ways to bridge the gap between online and offline, we have sought to ensure that stakeholders are still getting the same experience and understanding they would if face to face engagement were allowed. And, whilst the circumstances we find ourselves in are not ideal, we do believe that this has resulted in a stronger, more inclusive consultation process.

The principal of engagement is the same regardless of face to face or digital consultation methods. By developing a thorough awareness and an in-depth understanding of the community in which we are operating, we can help communities to connect with a vision and build relationships with those looking to bring change to an area.  This does not just mean reaching those who have the loudest voice, it means harnessing the support and feedback from those who don’t. Innovative ways to harness digital tools to widen involvement to those who may be less inclined to participate means that we reach a greater audience group, resulting in a positive change to ensure the built environment community can build better connections with for the communities they operate in.

Earlier in the year I penned a blog about our ‘top ten learns’ from digital consultation, based on the experience of managing a number of digital consultations throughout the country, from Basildon to Southampton, and Coventry to Cambridge. Each of these has varied in their approach – there is no ‘one size fits all’. Different audiences, local issues and demographics have shaped the strategy for each individual digital consultation, and this has been adaptable as the periods of engagement have continued to run their course. As Government guidelines have changed throughout the course of the year, approaches have remained flexible for a shift in the rules and to meet the needs of individual stakeholders. Interpreting plans from a website does arguably not have the same sense of excitement as meeting people face to face, and so using interactive methodologies such as voiceovers and narrated presentations has helped to bring the information being communicated to life, in a situation where meetings have been limited.

A number of digital platforms have been utilised throughout our digital consultations, as we have found a greater appetite from within local communities and stakeholder groups to engage as the shift towards digital engagement conversely creates greater accessibility, increasing the sense of partnership with tech allowing collaboration in real time. Whilst digital consultation remains a staple for our clients, we will continue to learn and adapt our methodologies for each individual scheme. For more on our learnings, see https://www.redwoodconsulting.co.uk/blog/its-a-virtual-world-how-to-deliver-a-digital-consultation

What will be key moving forward is continuing to bring communities with us. In recent months, perhaps more so than ever, communities have become even more attached to their local spaces due to spending an increased amount of time in these confines. A clear case for development and an engaging approach to consultation will continue to be of critical importance as we look to work to develop areas in conjunction with its local population. The value of traditional consultation still remains central to our ethos as consultation experts, and when safe to do so, we will be adopting a hybrid methodology of consultation as appropriate to the local community and demographic.

To find out how we can help you with your engagement, please contact us at info@redwoodconsulting.co.uk.