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How Tech Supports Meaningful Consultations

For planners, the pre-application consultation is a crucial part of the planning process. But consultation only supports this process when it's meaningful.

What do I mean by meaningful?

Meaningful consultations are clear, open dialogues between planners and communities. The consultation process should generate genuine engagement.

Planners can put their case to the public and, critically, listen to what communities have to say in response.

And the flipside is equally relevant: a non-meaningful consultation is as likely to have a negative impact. This has the potential to derail a project at its pre-application stage.

Here’s where technology comes in. We’re using a platform called PlaceBuilder to support our pre-application consultations and open a broader dialogue between planners and the public.

Why is Consultation Crucial?

Consultation should be a vehicle for openness and transparency. By embracing these qualities pre-application, planners and their representatives can send a powerful, positive signal to the public.

One consultation aim is to dispel any assumptions that a project is imposing itself on an area. Or that it has a hidden agenda.

Another aim is to gather information about a local community, including its needs, attitudes and feelings. This information can help to shape the application and ensure its suitability for the area.

Importantly, consultation invites and enables participation from the community. It draws people in rather than shutting them out of the process.

And it can shine a valuable light on the planning industry, demystifying it for the public.

Overcoming Limitations

Under the 2011 Localism Act, public consultation is a statutory requirement for some schemes. But not all.

However, there's intrinsic value in carrying out a meaningful consultation for many different schemes, providing there's a mechanism to support this.

This is about overcoming limitations and exploring new possibilities using technology. A key thing here is digital communication and how we advance it.

For example, you could set up a dedicated website for a project and ask people to leave comments about your proposals.

But the issue is that the site can become a dumping ground for people's issues and complaints. It doesn't really encourage a genuine dialogue with the community.

It comes back to participation. By enabling and encouraging community participation, we can better communicate the benefits of a scheme or project. This should go beyond people simply downloading plans from a site and then commenting on them via an online forum.

The PlaceBuilder platform takes digital engagement much further.

Valuable Data and Meaningful Engagement

Technology is a tool. The outputs will only be useful and effective if you've got the right inputs.

This begins with asking the right questions. It means structuring them to actively seek wider viewpoints AND to aid people’s understanding of the issues and proposals involved.

The PlaceBuilder platform takes users through various sub-topics, asking simple but highly relevant questions. Predominantly, it's mobile-based, to make it as convenient as possible for users.

What we gain is valuable data. This is information that tells us about a local area and its community. It contains a range of viewpoints, attitudes and reactions.

The user-friendliness of PlaceBuilder allows us to capture a much wider demographic in our consultations, encouraging people from all backgrounds to participate in the process. It can provide eight times the number of responses you’d expect from more traditional methods.

Yes, it’s a convenient method, but this doesn’t make it superficial. In fact, using the app as a community engagement tool overcomes the obstacles we may get with trying to engage on the ground, at physical meetings.

And the greater the participation via the app, the more communities should feel engaged in the planning process. It makes the whole concept of planning more accessible. That can only be a good thing.

I’m not advocating a wholesale replacement of face-to-face engagement, meetings and panel events. These will always help build trust and give planning a human face.

But the platform points a clear path forward for better, proactive community engagement and gaining greater public acceptance of new developments. It's good for the planning industry and for society in general.

PlaceBuilder has been developed by The Future Fox, a public purpose technology startup.

"We're delighted that David and Maddox Planning have embraced this technology and are ready to lead by example. We believe the PlaceBuilder app can make a huge difference to the built environment and placemaking by broadening and deepening the dialogue between planners and people." – Annette Jezierka, CEO, The Future Fox.

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