“How do you do a public consultation?”

If you’d asked me in February 2020, I would have told you about print adverts, flyer drops and booking some form of village hall in a place that sounds like it belongs in the League of Gentlemen. I’d tell you about a one-off print run of unwieldy exhibition boards, the quality of paper required for a feedback form and the limitations of a consultation website. Above all, I would tell you that you need to meet people face-to-face, whether you (or they) like it or not.

Flash-forward almost one and a half years later and one month from the Great Reopening and I find myself asking: do we really have to meet people again?

Throughout lockdown, we’ve had to reinvent how we work. In terms of stakeholder engagement, that has meant converting our in-person practices to digital ones. A one-stop-shop of a consultation website, with exhibition boards converted into tabs, a feedback form evolving into an online survey and targeted digital advertising stepping in (in part) for print adverts.

The results have been nothing short of astonishing (if unsurprising). Whereas as a traditional public exhibition might see thirty or forty people turn up over a couple of days, our websites have attracted thousands of views across two-week periods, leading to hundreds of feedback forms being completed.

We’ve reached audiences and people that had never been involved in a public consultation, and it turns out that many of them are actually in favour of converting car parks, depots and derelict buildings into new public squares, homes and restaurants. They just had something better to do on a Friday night or Saturday morning.

You may think that this is a treatise in favour of engaging the young and ignoring the old, but that does not chime with my experience in lockdown. Seeing digital feedback forms from people aged between 65 and 95 put paid to that early on – and watching octogenarians navigate Zoom with more grace than the host (yours truly) ensured a wide range of feedback and views were always to hand.

So why go back?

In short, because the innovations that were made to overcome the pandemic taught me that innovation should be constant, not just for a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime event. That’s why we need to combine the old with the new to create an approach that is all-encompassing.

Our most recent consultation here at Redwood is the first for 18 months in which we have actually (*gasp*) met members of the public. Whilst we have hosted the majority of the consultation online, we undertook to knock on the doors of neighbours of the proposed development site (after all, most people are in these days). The response was, after a year of digital consultation, notably positive. Whilst many people took a flyer and got on with their day, the longer conversations we had were hugely valuable and insightful.

Combining the best of physical and digital engagement, allows you to get a greater feel for a place, the day-to-day concerns that people have, the problems and opposition you might encounter and, crucially, the supporters you vitally need. Whilst we received plenty of support via online-only engagement during the 18 months of lockdown, now we have a greater opportunity to convert that into written support when planning applications are submitted.

Much like retail, the future of consultation and engagement is an omnichannel one. Whilst many people are keen to point out that everyone is online and connected these days, we often forget that we are all still living in the same reality as well. Whilst the former has served us and our clients well in the past 18 months, conversations in the latter are the ones that can make (or break) a planning application.