No going back

“The genie is out of the bottle”. That was the candid view of Clare Coghill, Leader of Waltham Forest Council, during a recent BECG webinar on the impact of the pandemic on Planning.

“You can’t use this technology, show people it exists, demonstrate that it is actually really convenient and positive, and then when we are able to return to some sort of normality, say well you saw the future, you’ve seen all the technology, now we are just going to take it away.”

She is surely right. Notwithstanding the fact that online committees and digital consultation have taken off in response to very specific and hopefully temporary circumstances, their impact will be hard to reverse.

That doesn’t mean that post-crisis, face to face committees won’t resume or the days of consultations in draughty village halls are over.  It is just that they will exist in a new reality, where behaviours and expectations have been permanently changed.

We have all been to planning committees where the poorly informed or those with a vested interest make contributions or voting decisions that are questionable.  Too often Planning Committees are closed loops, which do not pass basic tests of transparency or scrutiny.  So, let’s go for full disclosure – let the public in their thousands watch, let it all be recorded for posterity (or perhaps an attentive PINS Inspector or QC) and committees will behave differently. Some may grandstand more. Others, perhaps intimidated by the fact that their neighbours are watching, will pipe down. All will approach the debate and the vote, in full knowledge that it is properly in public, that voting decisions are recorded, and that they can be held to account.

There will always be a need for face to face engagement. But if village halls are still needed, surely, they must now co-exist with proper online consultation, using all the digital tools that bring a project alive? In the future, how can we deny access to those that want to study a project from the comfort of their home, at a time of their choosing, rather than a narrow few hours dictated by the applicant? How can we deny them the right to question the project team online, away from the glare of their neighbours?

Our experience at BECG is that developers are embracing digital consultation and the chance to reach beyond the few, to the many. Councils are stepping up and demonstrating that in a crisis they can innovative. Post-pandemic, the challenge will be to ensure that all committees are online, recorded and properly public and that all consultations, whether by developers or Councils, include digital exhibitions as an essential part of the engagement toolkit.

This article first appeared in Housebuilder Magazine’s June edition. You can view it here.