In addition to the unfathomable health, social and economic challenges created by coronavirus, the Government’s ambitious plans to level up the nation by injecting billions into the UK’s built infrastructure face a different kind of threat, but there is a solution here and now.
The problem is this. Any project, small, large or mega is subject to planning law and will have to go through a rigorous and regulated process to achieve its planning permission. A critical part of that process is public consultation – the best-practice cornerstone of which often remains a public event at which you meet face to face with those communities local to the project to understand their views and answer their questions.
And herein lies the challenge. How can you deliver effective public consultation if there is a ban on public events? No public event; no adequate consultation. No adequate consultation; no planning approval or Development Consent Order for a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project – be that roads, rail, energy or ports.
The simple answer is that the projects should not have to grind to a halt. We already have the solution. But how quickly the problem can be fixed will depend a great deal on local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate.
The answer lies in ‘digital’ or ‘virtual’ consultation, whereby access to project proposals and the ability to leave feedback is facilitated from the comfort of your armchair via your home computer, phone or tablet.
Clearly digital consultation is already with us, mainly in the form of an interactive project website. At Camargue we already have the capability to build engaging public consultation sites that can guide you through a complex project, explain the context, make the case and enable you to leave feedback that is then recorded for analysis.
Recent leaps forward in broadband capability mean that most of us can have a good look at project proposals online before making our way to a consultation event. But in the main, events remain the cornerstone of public consultation; where individuals can meet and talk to a member of a project team face-to-face, raise issues and ask questions. It is this human interaction that, to date, has not been needed within digital consultation websites.
And this is where the step change could take place for projects. Going forward, we now have the technical capability to build a ‘human element’ into digital consultation. We are already working on our own capability that allows people to participate in Digital Town Hall sessions, webinar presentations and, most importantly, schedule a one-to-one ‘live’ video or call session with a project team consultant in real time.
Key to success is ensuring that this experience remains a human one. Even in a virtual world, the experience must be designed so people feel they are connecting with an informed and caring human from the project team. Even in a digital world, people will still want to feel they have been heard and their views acknowledged.
It should be reassuring to the industry to know that we already have the technical capacity to solve this particular coronavirus challenge now, today.
However, as we stand, developers must demonstrate that their public consultation is accessible to all and does not omit anyone, including those with no computer or broadband connection; which would make a 100 per cent digital/virtual consultation, even with the human element, inadequate consultation.
What will be interesting/critical to projects moving forward will be how local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate consider this issue and provide guidance on what is acceptable as adequate consultation.
However, if the ban on public consultation events remains for some months, the choice will be stark; innovate and adapt or see the whole process grind to an untimely halt.
Mike Conway is a director at Camargue