Can digital consultation reconnect people to planning?

March 3, 2022

Proposals to give neighbourhoods and communities a more meaningful voice have proven to be divisive. Many welcome the new “digital-first” approach to community consultation while others have suggested it could weaken local democracy.

Proposals in the government’s planning White Paper ‘Planning for the Future’ are designed to reconnect communities to the planning process so that they are more involved in what happens in their areas. A report by the UK’s leading think tank, Policy Exchange, suggested that only a ‘noisy minority’ of typically older people and homeowners are currently engaged in the planning process. Planning for the Future sets out how local authorities can reach a wider range of people whose voice is currently not heard.

The proposals include:

  • increasing engagement at the plan-making stage to give neighbourhoods and communities an earlier and more meaningful voice in the future of their area.
  • streamlining consultation at the application stage to prevent delays to the planning process.
  • making planning information easier to find, including through social media and digital neighbourhood groups.
  • adopting digital engagement processes to make it easier to raise views about and visualise emerging proposals whilst on the go on a smartphone.

As planning consultants, we often take a lead on community consultation. We have long been using techniques such as drop-in events at village halls or leaflet distribution to engage stakeholders and have now partnered with Blackburn based PR company, Limitless, to deliver consultations that work in the digital age. By combining the tried and tested means of engagement with digital technologies, we can engage with a wider cross-section of society and not just the ‘noisy minority’.  

During lockdown, planning committees were forced to move online; in my experience, all parties quickly became accustomed to this and in fact welcomed the move. Many found virtual meetings to be far more efficient, less costly and successful in reaching larger and new audiences. Whilst the temporary guidance on virtual planning committees ended in May, the Government has said it is keen to hear from councils and local residents about their experiences of virtual meetings so that they can properly consider whether to make these a permanent option. It would seem an odd move to discount virtual committees in future when the ‘Planning for the Future’ paper very much advocates digital engagement.

Copy Of S&L Digital Consultation

With digital consultations, you can increase engagement by accessing a wider audience. Your target audience will also be far more likely to give feedback in the comfort of their own home, within a time frame that suits them, rather than in a setting where they may feel overwhelmed. Information about the proposed scheme is also more accessible and the tools used to gather feedback produce hard data which can inform decision making. Going digital can also help in reducing costs by reducing the need to hold events in person at local venues or numerous public consultations.  

Several platforms now make online consultations simple and do a lot of the legwork. Platforms such as Bang the Table, Engagement HQ and Particpatr are now widely used and are effective in driving wider and better engagement. 

The planning system does not operate in isolation from the public – it is designed to manage, control and regulate development, balancing competing needs in the public interest.  The business of planning and development can be highly emotional for communities and, for this reason, development must be approached with empathy.  The art of communication is critical and important to place yourself in the shoes of the people who live in the communities where you are proposing to build.   Early consideration of the impact of new development and the likely issues that may be generated is essential as part of de-risking any project.  


Clients can sometimes be hesitant to speak to local communities or neighbouring residents for fear of a backlash, but it pays to be open and transparent from the start.  Objections can often be a knee-jerk reaction and are cultivated by a lack of uncertainty regarding detail or a general perception that all development is ‘bad development’. A communication vacuum creates and fosters speculation, and this is where comprehensive consultations can help. Meeting residents and listening to their concerns, answering questions, modifying and improving proposals is all part of the process of engagement and design evolution. For residents to feel heard and understood is important and can help to dilute the swell of objection.  It can also provide valuable local insight on social, economic and environmental matters so that developments bring greater value. 

Whilst the planning White Paper is yet to progress to the next stage, we are recommending that all of our clients look at weaving in digital communication alongside the tried and tested consultation methods where there is a need to engage locally. There are plenty of platforms to reach target audiences and gather qualitative and quantitative data which can provide a more detailed picture of sentiment about a proposed scheme. 

Engaging with communities, stakeholders, and parish and town councils can result in fewer misunderstandings from the outset with a greater potential for buy-in with residents far less likely to object to schemes which they have seen evolve with their input.   Could this, together with the changes proposed in the White Paper, create a more positive relationship between planning authorities and their communitiesand might it help to see the demise of the NIMBY phenomenon?