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Digititalisation of Community Engagement

The digitalisation of community engagement within the planning system is a long-awaited change. Issues such as limited engagement amongst a younger demographic, poor user experience stemming from complex navigation systems and verbose planning documents have indubitably contributed to this sentiment. Factors such as these have infiltrated the realm of planning to such an extent where they have consolidated the lack of trust communities have in the planning system.

As stated in the planning white paper “Planning for the Future”, the Government aims to address such issues through digitalisation. Particularly through creating user-friendly tools to allow communities to engage earlier with planning related matters and to enable users to easily find and digest information. Examples of such tools include:

  • Interactive map-based local plans;
  • Groups on social networking sites and online neighbourhood groups;
  • Smartphone applications;

To drive forward this step-change, the Government is expecting digital engagement related software to be delivered by PropTech organisations and the PropTech Innovation Council. MHCLG are working closely with these organisations to understand the technology available and how this can be used appropriately. In conjunction, they will aim to support local authorities in developing innovative methods of engaging with communities and ultimately aim to speed up the planning process.

The push towards digitalising community engagement is likely to result in planning becoming more accessible to a wider range of participants, mainly younger people, who are currently underrepresented in planning. If this is supplemented by user-friendly systems, which are visually focused, rather than loaded with technical prose, it may allow for residents to better fathom how policy aims to shape the future of their communities.

Over the last six months, we have already seen the direct benefits of digital engagement. It has enabled planners to ensure that projects progress with minimal disruption. Our team in Boyer’s Midlands office have demonstrated how digital technologies have been successfully used to avoid potential delays presented by Covid-related restrictions. This was evidenced through undertaking three online public consultations during September for various clients. The levels of engagement were very similar compared to consultation through a physical public exhibition.

Nevertheless, there are some challenges that we must acknowledge. The first being that the use of digital methods of engagement in isolation may ostracise hard to reach groups and the older population. Furthermore, the shift towards digitalisation will bring with it a financial burden and it will undoubtedly take time to come into practice. It is also vital that local authorities are provided with adequate resource and skill set to implement and manage these systems.

Further digitalisation of the planning system is an exciting prospect. It is still in its infancy and we anticipate over the next few years, with the necessary investment, the plan-tech sector is going to expand considerably. There are opportunities to learn from current experiences and combining digital with traditional methods of consultation, we expect local engagement with the planning system to significantly improve.

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