Insights article

Mastering Online Engagement: Tools and Strategies for Your Next Planning Consultation

Sebastian Weise
Published: 28/05/2020

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The Covid-19 crisis of 2020/21 and the subsequent lockdowns had a profound impact on town planning, necessitating swift adaptation to new ways of working and interacting. Town planning consultations with residents and external stakeholders were particularly affected, leading to a significant shift towards online community engagement.

For the architecture and planning sector, some of the changes implemented during this period are likely to become long-term fixtures. Notably, there has been a surge in developers conducting online consultations, and local councils have consistently upgraded their online consultation capabilities.

Amidst these changes, both local authorities and developers had to quickly transition to online platforms, reimagining planning consultations that were traditionally conducted face-to-face. This move toward online planning consultations has not only proven effective during the pandemic but has also unveiled exciting possibilities for the future.

This article will delve into the essential tools and considerations for successfully embracing online planning consultations, ensuring effective and efficient engagement with your audience.

How has the industry adapted thus far?

The challenges imposed by social distancing have ignited innovation within the realms of architects and planners, prompting the exploration of fresh and more captivating approaches to conducting planning consultations.

Adapting to this changing landscape, town planners now frequently extend their reach beyond conventional online surveys. Instead, they are embracing more innovative formats, such as interactive consultations through platforms like PlaceChangers, utilizing proposal maps, creating custom consultation websites, and even experimenting with tools like virtual exhibitions.


Tools used for online engagement

Use a project website to summarise engagement activities

Video conference / Q&A for remote workshops (for example Zoom, offers breakout rooms)

Collaborative boards like for limited design workshops

Open map consultations enable flag up local issues and opportunities with residents. 

Interactive proposal maps enable feedback on proposal at a latest consultation stage.

virtual consultation room can present a virtual presentation of exhibition boards.

Moreover, since the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak, the public sector has undergone adaptation. The government, through the white paper on  'Planning for the Future', aimed to advocate for digital alternatives to traditional street-side planning application notices. Many of these new methods for conducting planning consultations have proven to be productive.

However, what remains somewhat deficient are well-defined strategies and documented approaches to online engagement. For developers, this presents an opportunity to identify and articulate their preferred engagement methods. In the case of local governments, many Statements of Community Involvement, which outline expectations for engagement, need updating to incorporate suitable online engagement formats. Addressing these aspects will enable us to harness the full potential of online planning consultations."

So how can you get ready to consult online? 

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.

Considerations for evaluating online consultation methods

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

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 your preferred engagement format

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. 




Narrow reach (small audience)

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

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

Collaborative boards like for design workshops

Video calls with defined consultees for Q&A sessions

Wider reach (large audience)

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

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. 

Evaluate planning consultation tools before you commit

Embracing the right online tools for your planning consultation is a pivotal step towards success. To ensure you make the best choice, it's essential to assess the compatibility of these tools with your specific goals and objectives. To guide you in this process, let's delve into a comprehensive list of key criteria to consider:

    How user friendly is the tool for 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.
    Can the tool help your team collaborate on consultation tasks? Can you have several administrators and can other consortium members log in or see the content?
    How easily does it summarise consultation comments? Is there a simple analytics dashboard with flexible export options?
    Does the online tool play well with your website and branding? This is key to provide a consistent experience to respondents.


The Covid-19 crisis served as a pivotal opportunity for developers, architects, and planners to not just adapt but to thrive in delivering planning consultations online.

This moment presents a unique chance to not only reassess your in-house tools and processes but to explore innovative solutions that extend far beyond the limitations of simple feedback forms or extensive PDF documents.

Since the Covid pandemic, the sector has substantially changed and is now more ready to embrace novel consultation practice. Many digital tools outlined above can be combined in an engagement programme to inform, enable dialogue, and invite comments on designs.

Now, more than ever, purpose-built consultation tools can engagement and consultation even further by enabling sophisticated interactive experiences while helping to auto-summarise consultation response in useful ways.

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. 

Find out more

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