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The Briefing

It’s all part of the (virtual) plan…

by Claire Aiken

12/05/2020

The reach and pace of change across all of our society as a direct consequence of COVID 19, has been both ubiquitous and exponential.  So many aspects of our lives continue to change and evolve at an unprecedented rate.

Nowhere is that pace of change more evident than within the digital transformation that we’ve seen in the last eight weeks. Whether its teachers hosting lesson’s with children on Microsoft teams, client video calls on ZOOM or catching up with family and friends more fervently than before on WhatsApp, our lives have a new digital focus.

That connectivity so ingrained in the human spirit is more crucial now than ever and our dependency on staying connected, digitally, will be at the forefront of government efforts to mitigate the pernicious impact of the virus through contact tracing apps.

Much of the change we see today is here to stay, in one form or another, with technology set to play an important role in our economic resurgence. It is for that reason that Minister Nichola Mallon’s acuity and pragmatism in recognising that there are viable technology–based solutions to ease the planning impasse caused by COVID 19 should be warmly welcomed.

In bringing forward temporary legislation that removed the need to hold public events as part of the pre–application community consultation (PACC) process for major applications, it will enable the planning process to function throughout the crisis. This is crucial to maintain the pipeline of planning projects which will support much needed investment and job creation, as we seek to restore economic and civic prosperity.

The recognition of the economic corollary of shelved planning applications and the decisive action to mitigate it, represents strong and confident leadership.

Crucial to the success of the new legislation, however, will be the veracity and inclusiveness of the application process based on a range of sound technology and engagement focused communications.

Readers of this column may be aware that I have been involved with Ulster GAA and DfC in support of the regionally significant Casement Park Stadium Project, the final strand of the Northern Ireland Executive’s Regional Stadia Programme. As the Casement project awaits its planning decision, inclusive, engaging and empowering local community consultation events have been a gamechanger with the current application.  

In these changed times, following the introduction of the legislation on May 1st, traditional consultation events will be replaced by virtual consultations and engagements.  How will they work? How will the integrity of the process be maintained, where applicants can provide alternatives to face to face engagement in ways that enable appropriate exchange of views and ensure the voices of hard to reach groups are heard?

The starting point for this is the recognition of the changing world and the evolving and developing digital usage patterns of society.  OFCOM’s Adult Media Use and Attitudes report in 2019 stated that 35 to 44–year olds and 45 to 54–year olds, spend 30 hours and 25 hours a week online, respectively. It is in this context that online consultation and engagement presents an opportunity to deliver a very different type of communication with communities and stakeholders across our society. It can provide sustained engagement and participation over a longer period of time with periodic opportunities for people to engage, in line with the demands of their lives, enabling them to better influence the process. Younger, tech centric, people under the age of 30 are disengaged from the planning process and online engagement provides opportunities to broaden the demographics of consultations as well enabling accessibility to those who are not mobile enough to attend physical events.

The new guidance accompanying the legislation is clear, the consultation process must continue to ensure people have access to information, can put forward ideas, have an active role in proposals with local knowledge considered. The challenge for applicants in a new digital PACC environment is ensuring they understand their audiences, the complexity of the mediums they plan to use and people’s familiarity with them.  The blend of the digital and traditional two–way communicative process will be integral to the success of consultations ensuring participation across all audiences are included, particularly those that are hard to reach.   

All of this will be influenced by the size, scale, nature and location of the application with a range of media available including virtual exhibitions within a public facing website, live Q&As, narrated videos and feedback sections; video conferencing, real time interaction and shareable materials; online discussion forums, surveys and interactive chat facilities.  The role of social media will become even more concentrated in signposting virtual events, helping to inform communities, stimulating debate and broadening inclusivity. 

However, the successful delivery of meaningful, inclusive online consultations will have muted impact for our economic recovery if the councils and the department cannot maintain their throughput of applications.  Timely assessment and decisions, adhering to all due process, is needed to kick start economic activity. The Chief Planning Officer’s assurance on the department’s approach to achieving this and the councils’ structures to enable committees to sit virtually or otherwise, in line with COVID 19 restrictions, is a critical cog in this wheel.  

With good reason, families, communities, businesses and society at large are concerned about their health and economic futures.  But confidence in public health and the economy will return and actions that are taken today will ease the burden in the future.  Summed up with absolutely simplicity by the great Ghandi, ‘the future depends on what you do today’. Small subtle changes in short term planning, can mean large significant announcements in investments and jobs in the longer term, and that is something we all welcome.