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Posted: 28.04.20

Digital consultation: Reaching people at home

For over 20 years, LCA has been devising and delivering engagement and consultations for some of London’s most high-profile built environment and change management projects. 

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Working with developers, London boroughs, City Hall and a wide range of community and stakeholder groups, we have continually sought to evolve and improve our approach, ensuring that engagement meets the needs of specific areas and communities, whilst positively communicating the importance of approving and delivering vital development and infrastructure projects.

Since the turn of the new millennium, we have seen huge advances in technology that have shaped the way we live our lives and operate as a society. The rise of the internet and our increasing reliance on it has evolved at breath-taking speed. Google was launched only a year before LCA’s inception, and we were celebrating our eighth birthday when Apple launched its very first iPhone.

These technological changes have led to massive shifts in behaviour, in how we interact with one another and how we want information to be presented. As a result, the consultation and engagement landscape has changed dramatically, with traditional ‘face to face’ methods such as exhibitions and community meetings being joined by digital tools, including the use of interactive websites, social media and most recently, purpose-built engagement platforms and online surveys that are managed and publicised by a third party. All of which has enabled quicker access to information and easier ways to provide feedback.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting ‘lockdown’ measures has meant we have had to further embrace the use of digital tools. Most people will have now been involved in a Zoom or Microsoft Teams call, whether for work or to take part in a quarantine quiz, many of whom would have never considered using video calls less than six weeks ago.

The important caveat to all this, however, is that traditional methods of engagement remain a critical factor when preparing and implementing consultations strategies in a post-Covid-19 world. Whether that is through newsletters, flyers or more detailed brochures, it is crucial to continue reaching out to those that may not have access to the internet or prefer hard-copy information. Any consultation strategy will need to finely balance the use of digital tools to reach an audience that is now restricted to being at home – using targeted online advertising, enhanced websites and engagement platforms – with still getting the message across in print form or via a simple phone call.

In recent weeks, LCA has concentrated on understanding local attitudes, across London’s boroughs, to consulting on and bringing forward planning applications in this new environment, as well as taking account of mayoral and government advice. Our focus has been on continuing to support our clients to deliver projects that are vital to the future success of London, even more so once we begin to rise from the current situation.

Across London – from Barnet to Hammersmith and from Chelsea to Camden – LCA has been adapting approaches to consultation, working closely with our client teams and council officers to seamlessly transition from physical-led to digital-led consultations. We are:

  • producing videos to showcase designs and plans;
  • launching online surveys and polls;
  • hosting video-conferences and virtual workshops;
  • designing enhanced project websites;
  • deploying targeted social media advertising campaigns;
  • setting-up telephone drop-in sessions;
  • organising webinars and live Q&A sessions;
  • developing computer generated imagery and fly-through 3D animations;
  • exploring virtual, augmented and mixed reality tools;
  • issuing hard-copy brochures to residents and key stakeholders
  • holding drop-in surgery sessions by phone; and,
  • briefing clients ahead of virtual planning committees.

Our four strong in-house design team is central to this work, as experts in creating high-quality content across digital, social and print channels, working closely with their account facing LCA colleagues. Meanwhile, our dedicated research team is also helping us stay abreast of how national, regional, and local authorities’ planning requirements are evolving.

Those requirements have been changing rapidly and unevenly over the past month and the approach of London’s local authorities to planning during the pandemic varies considerably. Many councils have started making decisions via ‘virtual’ committee meetings, using a variety of different digital platforms and meeting protocols. Others have not yet scheduled any, with planning decisions either paused, or delegated temporarily to senior officers. Similarly, boroughs’ expectations for public consultation also vary, in accordance with their respective sensibilities and priorities – and we know that many key stakeholders, from local MPs to amenity groups, have raised concerns about the public’s ability to engage meaningfully with the planning process during the lockdown. 

Indeed, even under these unprecedented restrictions, the fundamental elements to devising and delivering effective engagement strategies remain. It is, as ever, vital that any strategy is tailored to its locality – understands the borough, the site, the local stakeholders and influencers; recognises how politicians, community groups and residents want to be consulted and ensures that the methods being considered will maximise the opportunity to engage a wide audience. LCA is working on live examples and we will continue to adapt and evolve our approach.

Lockdown will end eventually and slowly we will return to some form of new ‘normality’. People’s appetite for engaging physically is unlikely to wane during this time – we are social beings after all. However, there is a strong sense that many of the digital developments that have emerged over the past six weeks will be here to stay and will continue to develop and be easier to access and use. From virtual planning committees to virtual exhibitions, the way we engage will never quite be the same again. But just as we have for 20 years, LCA will continue to be at the forefront of supporting our clients to bring forward their plans through intelligence-led consultation and engagement.

Please do get in touch with Board Director & Partner Chris Madel if you want to discuss your project.