Virtual Consultations Services Guide

Corona-proof engagement plans

If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

For built environment professionals, the times certainly are a-changin’. Coronavirus is turning the world upside down, but the need to build more houses, roads and infrastructure remains urgent. We can’t let projects stall and falter. At a time when we can no longer meet in person, new ways of doing things need to be developed so progress can be made.

The answer is virtual. As millions of people are forced to work online, total internet usage has surged by as much as 70 per cent. Being under quarantine has made us gather in new ways – via Zoom, Teams and FaceTime. Meetings, conferences, networking events and parties are still happening – we just need to open our laptops and jump in.

The virus has accelerated the pace of the shift to online platforms. Last month saw LB Waltham Forest lead the way in launching online planning committees, whereby an application for 750 homes in the borough was approved online under new post-coronavirus rules. Westminster, Wandsworth and Richmond have all declared themselves ready to hold virtual planning committees, with more on the way. Many councils are already holding pre-app meetings remotely.

How do we maintain effective engagement in the time of social distancing? High quality engagement is vital if people are to keep faith in the planning process. Could corona see the end of public exhibitions in drafty church halls as people start to favour the convenience that going online affords?

BECG has been pioneering new methods of corona proof engagement. One of our projects, Bradwell B, has just launched its first stage of consultation on proposals for a new nuclear power station at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex. Once operational, Bradwell B will generate enough electricity to power about four million homes, making an important contribution to the UK’s future low carbon energy needs. Rather than delay the project, an online virtual consultation has launched, enabling members of the public to enter a virtual exhibition hall with information boards, videos and interactive maps. A chat bot feature enables people to ask questions and receive answers in real time. Designated times for face to face consultation mean people can engage in conversation with members of the project team via their screens. More people than ever can participate without the limitations of hours on consultations.

Following a dreadful fire in Worcester Park last year, we supported a charitable housing association to do everything possible to support all of the residents affected. We have been using new webinar technology to enable the housing association to continue to meet and keep in touch with residents in light of the corona pandemic.

As the co-chair of a networking group for LGBT+ built environment professionals, I have been exploring ways to enable our community to continue to network, sharing best practice and swapping virtual business cards (thanks, LinkedIn!). Our first members’ online virtual networking will take place in late April, looking at the impact of corona on our high streets.

We are facing unprecedented challenges. Traditional ways of operating are no longer available to us. Current events are forcing us to seek new ways of working. We’re visualising projects digitally, meeting virtually, networking online. Way back in 1910, EM Forster said the key to living was to ‘Only connect…’. Jump forward to 2020 and the possibilities of connecting seem endless. Will we ever need to work in the old ways again?