Insights article

Getting ready to engage online – tools and considerations for your next planning consultation

Sebastian Weise
Published: 28/05/2020

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The Covid-19 crisis has undoubtedly had a substantial impact on our daily life. The need to practice social distancing and stay home deeply affected our family and workplaces for the most part throughout the crisis. Among the many implications, it meant that local authorities and developers had to adapt to working online rapidly while avoiding non-essential travel, site visits, and other activities that typically relied on face-to-face meetings, including planning consultations. 

For the construction sector, some of the changes in place now will likely stay for the long-term. For instance, many developers delivered more online viewings than ever before. For organisations in the sector, this means really to adopt online collaboration tools and digitise the various processes that have not been touched or drastically rethought for years. 

Public engagement and planning consultation, one of the critical areas for planning projects has been particularly under strain.

Typically, public participation for planning projects has been conducted face-to-face to ensure that there is an opportunity to shape new proposals to the needs of the locality and with the input of local stakeholders who live there. Covid-19 crisis has added to the usual challenges of public engagement by making it harder to have those conversations in public meetings. 

How can you get ready to engage online and what online engagement tools can help?

How has the industry adapted thus far?

Challenges posed by social distancing also provided opportunities for architects and planners to try new ways of engaging and delivering planning consultations. Major consultancies started to review their setup of consultation tools and platforms beyond standard online surveys. We have seen greater adoption of map consultations, consultation websites, and interesting experimental tools, such as virtual consultation rooms. 

Furthermore, the public sector has adapted since the outbreak of Covid-19. With the recent white paper on 'Planning for the Future', the government is set to push digital alternatives to traditional street-side planning application notices. Instead of relying on traditional local media alone, there has been a greater adoption of social media to get the message out. Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, local planning committees were held by video conference, although the government currently seems to back track on that option. 

Many of these new methods for delivering planning consultations have been productive. Often missing still are clear strategies and documented approaches to online engagement. For developers this means to identify and articulate preferred engagement methods. And for local government, many Statements of Community Involvement (that define expectations to engage) need updating with mention of suitable online engagement formats.

So how can you get ready to engage online? 

Luckily it is not too hard to adopt interactive consultation methods beyond simple online surveys. Often the challenge is the abundance of tools and methods that can be used for planning consultations. There are many free options for creating websites, polls, shared boards, or even virtual meetings provides a great starting point, but will require configuration to fit the consultation programme. 

Beyond this, bespoke consultation platforms, such as the PlaceChangers platform and others, are designed to close the gap between project owners and members of the public in planning consultations. Bespoke tools come at a cost but, in return, come with time savings for arranging, conducting, and interpreting public engagement. They combine the necessary functionalities, such as presentation of the proposal, contact and response handling, as well as reporting; while at the same time reducing friction for members of the public who want to respond.

Before you go any further, consider the aims for your consultation programme.

Here are a few pointers that are essential in evaluating the approach to engage online and the kinds of tools to use. 

Work back from your purpose

What is your project about and where is input useful and needed as part of a planning consultation? What are your key milestones where external input is valued? As before, clarify the milestones and timings and note them down in a document. 

Consider suitable engagement formats

In the table below, we have grouped engagement formats and tools into four quadrants. With “Open ended” formats you are looking to invite a discussion on project principles; with “closed ended” formats you are inviting feedback on narrow questions.

You will also need to consider the size and format of engaging with the audience in your planning consultation. Direct interactions are naturally more suitable for small audiences, so have a narrow reach. Online conversations on consultation platforms, on the other hand, enable responses from a wider audience, but lose some of the nuance and richness from a narrow approach. 


Open ended (earlier stages)

Closed ended (later stages)

Narrow reach (small audience)

Video calls with invited audience for remote workshops (for example Zoom, offers breakout rooms)

Collaborative boards like for design workshops

Video calls with defined consultees for Q&A sessions

Various voting tools, like Slido, are suitable for feedback in online meetings.

Wider reach (large audience)

Use a project website to summarise engagement activities

Area appraisals with map surveys enable flag up local issues and opportunities. 

Crowd-sourcing surveys such as All our Ideas can help generate a wide range of ideas, 

Use your project website to summarise engagement activities and follow-up. 

Interactive proposal maps for feedback on proposal and direct feedback

A virtual consultation room can add the experience of partaking in a public exhibition, but often a simpler website is fine. 

Evaluate dedicated planning consultation tools before you commit

Most importantly, recognising if the tool fits the purpose will be achieved by evaluating which online tools are suitable for your planning consultation.

Here is a list of the most important aspects to consider:

    How user friendly is the tool for members of the public? This is both about the interface and also the way plans are presented.
    Does the tool handle contacts in GDPR compliant manner? Especially important for projects that are large and longer-term where follow-up is provided.
    What flexibility is there for your team to collaborate and share the load? Can you have several administrators and can other consortium members log in or see the content?
    How quick and easy can you collate your responses and make them useful for the project? Is there a simple analytics dashboard with flexible export options?
    Does the online tool easily integrate with important inhouse software? This might be important to work more effectively and ensure data gets in and out easily.
    Does the online tool play well with your website and branding? This is key to provide a consistent experience to respondents.
    How often do you engage? Do you have a great variety of projects that always require a bespoke approach; or do you have similar projects that benefit from a streamlined approach. 


The Covid-19 crisis is an opportunity for developers, architects, and planners to review the tools that are used in-house and to define a process that works for them to deliver planning consultations online. However, we suggest this is also a good opportunity to consider new tools beyond simple feedback forms embedded in websites, or even in combination with length PDF documents.

While we live in a crisis that requires a significant change in practice, there are also many free and increasingly purpose-built tools that can assist in moving engagement and consultations online. Many tools can be combined in an engagement programme to either enable different kinds of feedback and to cater to the needs of different audiences that you like to engage with.

Explore the PlaceChangers planning toolkit

PC Engagement - market leading planning engagement

Set up powerful map surveys and polls based on the changes that may come up on your estate and prioritise future planning interventions more easily. 

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