As Britain continues to deal with Coronavirus Crisis, our consultant Khev Limbajee, who also serves as local councillor in East London, gives his analysis on how developers are moving to embrace innovative ways to consult and help keep development, as a vital part of the economy, going.

COVID-19 is unprecedented and the tragedies that are happening on a daily basis are sadly affecting everyone.  The response to this crisis has also been unprecedented. There is a feeling that the country is coming together in a way we haven’t seen since the Second World War. The 8pm clap on Thursday evenings for our NHS and essential workers has been a heartfelt, genuine response from a nation to the most dedicated people.

The reality is that councils are preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best. Like the rest of the country, council staff are working remotely, with a skeleton staff of senior dedicated officers in town halls doing what they do best – protecting the health and welfare of their residents and to keep public services running. What has to be done to get through this crisis is all too clear, along with other agencies, councils are at the heart of the response from closing schools, setting up new hospitals, organising volunteers, and recruiting new carers. As a local councillor myself, I can attest to the dedication of local government officers serving the public selflessly.

But beyond the immediacy of a frontline response, the wider functioning of local government is essential in keeping the economy going. Holding a vital position in this context is the planning system. Alongside licensing, planning is one of the regulatory committees, which means by law, members have to be physically present. With the recently passed Coronavirus Act, this has now changed, as the Act supported by statutory instrument allows for virtual committees. This week South Somerset District Council held its first virtual planning committee with members of the public logging on. There were some teething problems with trolls coming on, but on the planning committee side, this system is moving and committees meeting virtually should not be a block on applications going through.

However, there are other reasons to factor in. Councils are focused on dealing with COVID-19 with council staff redeployed onto essential frontline duties. This redeployment may have an impact on slowing down the process. But crucially, how do planning applicants carry out a meaningful engagement with residents and stakeholders?

The heart of what we do at Redwood through our public consultations is to ensure that members of the public, residents and a wider set of stakeholders from community organisations to local businesses get their say when it comes to development. They want to speak and be listened to – having their voice heard is an essential part of the democratic process.  Going to public exhibitions, the traditional places to view plans and make their views known direct to the developer, is now no longer viable. We do not know how long the brake on social contact is going to be upheld, and newsletters and other information by post can still be delivered, but a consequence for the near and medium term is that a great deal will shift to virtual means.

Virtual elements in community consultation have up to now played an increasingly more prominent role. However, the move to consult much more remotely is new and we have to anticipate benefits and possible drawbacks. One key drawback would of course be that lack of face to face contact. However, this can be mitigated by online workshops, webinars, and bespoke group meetings.

Digital exclusion is another threat from those who do not have access to digital means be they from an older demographic or those who don’t have English as a first language. For these groups, post remains an option as well as phone consultations with project team members. On the other hand, one major plus side of using digital is to widen participant take up to groups and people who would not normally take part in a consultation. This could include potentially younger professionals and those with younger families who lead busy lives and don’t have the time to take part in face-to-face consultation. This group would provide valuable feedback for a scheme.

At the centre of any consultation is the public exhibition. For three major schemes where we are running consultations in Essex, on the South Coast and in the Midlands, we will be holding online public exhibitions for local residents to engage with, spread over a couple of weeks, giving people more time to input their feedback. This will run alongside other tailored consultation outreach programmes, such as websites, social media and online feedback forms.

We are in new territory here – there are no guidelines published by councils as to what constitutes adequate consultation, yet we know that they will be open to new thinking and receptive to ideas. This is something that the built environment community should embrace to help build better connections with for the communities they operate in.

A by-product of this crisis is that the consequence could be a richer, more authentic consultation process. Consequently, better buildings could be built and, in the end, a vital part of the British economy will continue to function and thrive.