Covid pandemic saw planning consultations go online. The results were not what you might expect – Alastair Stewart

Once when I was teaching in Spain, I realised I was the only one born in the 20th century on an entire school floor.

Some elderly people have taken to online planning consultations because they can give their views from the comfort of their own home (Picture: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Some elderly people have taken to online planning consultations because they can give their views from the comfort of their own home (Picture: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

I was 26, and a group of teens explained how Facebook was for old people, and Instagram was “what every young person uses, teacher”. It was a life lesson in perspective.

But the anecdote that technology is more problematic for older family members is a dated cliche. Consider the number of families across the country that utilise WhatsApp, Facetime and shop online. That people of a certain age 'don't do online' or 'don't do digital' seems a tad disrespectful.

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And I've seen repeated proof of that since the pandemic struck. I have been working on delivering digital planning consultations for Orbit Communications since March 2020. The Scottish government suspended in-person events, a statutory part of the pre-application consultation (PAC) process, and, in April 2020, called for digital methods to deliver planning consultations because of ongoing restrictions.

In that time, I have personally worked on and delivered over 55 consultations for clients such as David Lloyd Clubs, Buccleuch Property, Cala Homes, Edinburgh Council and Watkin Jones. Two of my projects were named as best practice by the Scottish government.

Contrary to myth, 'older people' consistently avail themselves of digital consultations precisely because they're accessible from home and allow people to review information in their own time.

Before the pandemic, the Orbit team was no stranger to hosting in-person town hall events. There was no statutory obligation to place information online. And it was true – there was always a massive number of older people in attendance, with fewer people in the evening.

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Younger crowds tended to trickle in but never steadily. My theory was that a cold, wintry night was never that appealing to view dry details of a planning project on some pop-up exhibition boards. Summer days made it even harder as one could be enjoying rare good weather.

All of that has now changed. Web-based consultations have allowed for 18 months worth of analytics. Our websites are equipped with voluntary data fields like age. On average, 60 per cent of those engaging online are under the age of 45. The rest identified as older, and one person said they were 92.

More than 70 per cent of web views come from mobile devices, the rest divided among tablets and desktops. An average project website gets somewhere 400 and 4,000 hits, depending on the scale of the project. There are generally between ten and 60 feedback forms returned. There are usually about 70 to 100 questions raised in live webinar sessions.

The aim with digital is not, as some have suggested, to obfuscate. I have never seen any suggestion of deliberate attempts to curtail engagement. Local community groups and councillors are sent an advert about the event, and I encourage them to share the information. It is useless if ten, or 50, or 100 people say they did not know about it – that defeats the point of consultation.

The more controversial the project, the more critical it is to collate feedback. This is especially true for hot topics like purpose-built student accommodation, loss of green space, loss of amenity, or just a potential big building next door.

Online makes it impossible to avoid hard questions, and there is ample opportunity to address community concerns head-on. One held last week was between 4pm and 8pm. It was conducted through a webinar, a live presentation on the hour, and hosted through a project website. A press release, a flyer, and a statutory planning notice were all issued and arranged.

Tackling digital access will be a long-term challenge, and face-to-face exhibitions will always have a clear role to play. It's paramount to offer paper copies of boards and feedback forms when requested.

But 'digital exclusion' has a definite, conclusive air to it. It suggests a full stop, not a comma. Because of Covid-19, society has had to deploy new methods to maximise access and workarounds to get back to some normalcy.

In restaurants, we saw growing pains with menus accessed through QR-codes. I was in a cafe after the first lockdown and still remember a young woman sitting for 30 minutes before clocking the menu was accessed on her phone. She had been too embarrassed to ask for help.

My experience of this is that older people, far from a tired demographic, are the ones who have seized the opportunities to comment online. There is a marked contrast in how all demographics engage now. The evidence suggests that more residents will participate if a developer creates a website with remote chat functionality, such as a webinar at set times.

The Scottish government has announced a further statutory in-person event as part of the pre-application consultation process, meaning developers across Scotland must now present their proposals to the community at two in-person town hall meetings.

The suspension of such meetings, which was due to lapse in September of this year, has been extended and they will remain online until April 2022.

In the future, it is maddening to think such opportunities for engagement will be lost. A hybrid combination of in-person and digital should be a statutory requirement.

Here is a proven system that works for communities and development teams. Online has overwhelmingly transformed how communities engage, voice their views, and keep up to date with proposed projects.

We should not abandon the best lessons of the worst pandemic in a scramble to resume “business as usual”.

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant

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