Insights article

Ensuring accessibility and inclusiveness of online planning consultations

Sheryle Moon
Published: 23/02/2022

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Covid has caused an accelerated shift of many everyday activities into the digital space. Work from Home is now prevalent, and many people are reluctant to return to an office environment. Similarly, in the planning and development environment, during the pandemic, "town hall" type meetings on proposed developments had moved to online on video conferencing or dedicated digital consultation platforms. In this article, we provide some pointers how to ensure inclusiveness and accessibility of planning consultations.

Town Hall meetings are usually held in the evening or on weekends, neither of which may be convenient to families or shift workers. The town hall-style of meeting often disadvantages the more reticent community members and assists a vocal group in ensuring their voice is heard. This disparity in attendance and being listened to may skew the feedback and underplay, or overplay, the positives and negatives of the proposed project.  

With the pandemic on the way our, digital consultation is here to stay. In the 2020 White Paper on 'Planning for the Future', the UK government has mandated community engagement consultations for built environment projects to be moved to digital platforms in England. Similarly, the 2021 Levelling Up white paper puts priority on digital planning. It's now on us to ensure that consultations in any shape or form are easily accessible and transparent for residents to engage. 

When moving more of our consultation online, web accessibility is critical and a key part. However, accessibility of planning consultations takes several forms, from ensuring that residents are informed of the capability to respond to new development proposals through to the ease of accessing the details of the development and providing meaningful feedback. 

Leading developers such as Redrow and Countryside  and leading councils such as North Tyneside Council embrace resident feedback — promising developments result from good consultations where the community has had a meaningful role in shaping the designs. 

Make your planning consultations accessible  

Introducing change into a community is more readily accepted if residents have had an opportunity to contribute. Residents value the opportunity to contribute, and being listened to helps build trust and a shared understanding of new development projects. Lack of consultation and consequent lack of commitment from residents can be counterproductive. Project teams are looking for success, and planning the engagement strategy with accessibility in mind ensures the project gets off the ground in the best possible way. 

Understand the community first

Before engaging online, ensure that you have a view of the demographics and likely challenges and concerns of those in the local area. Here, ready insights tools can help to explain how the local area and people differ from national averages. This information can then shape your planning consultation. Take a look at the PlaceChangers Site Insights tool, for instance.

It's also worth to check the local area for internet access and broadband issues. This is particularly important in rural areas. This can be done with publicly accessible insights on connectivity

Make consultations available any time, any where

Online consultation platforms provide a web address and a QR code that allows residents to sign up anywhere, anytime, and anywhere. As digital consultation tools provide a ready-made framework, they are cost-effective for small and extensive projects.

Done right, the move to digital consultation can engage a wider cohort of residents as it is available anywhere, anytime and on any device. From newsletters to social media, digital platforms make it easier to communicate with residents and other stakeholders. Many projects now employ project websites and online consultation platforms. You can learn more about these differences here.  

Once the development has passed the concept stage, the project team can load the proposed development details onto a digital platform. This can take many forms, from a text-based discussion paper followed by a survey with specific questions to more interactive visualisation of the project allowing walkthroughs and freeform comments and answers to particular questions designed by the project team. 

Use visualisations and interactivity instead of text

With digital consultation tools for planning and construction, such as PlaceChangers, you can quickly pinpoint proposed development on an interactive map of the neighbourhood. The use of graphics and 3D modelling lets residents see what the new building or infrastructure will look like and how it will impact the existing location facilities. 

Data visualisation, be they maps or dashboards, are widely used to help target audiences in the decision-making process. Considering this, project teams need to decide their resident engagement strategy, including the desired goals for the engagement. The feedback gathered is more effective and can inform development decisions and possible changes if residents can easily see the proposed changes and give structured and accessible form feedback and suggestions. 

Videos and walkthroughs can also be attached to the map allowing residents to have an extensive understanding of the new project. Inbuilt surveys, freeform text opportunities and heat maps allow better reporting for the project teams and help them fulfil pre-app requirements. 

Try a combination of consultation methods

Accessibility of a consultation is typically maximised if you can draw on options for participants to participate. This could include making it easy to request a paper copy or email address to provide written feedback. 

With the pandemic on the way out, interactive public meetings could be a great opportunity to connect to residents in person. When you do engage off-line, why not provide hand outs and flyers that reference your online consultation. This way participants can opt to leave feedback either in person or in the follow-up online. 

There are a wide rage of other interactive formats that you can try, including also online consultation meetings using video conferencing platforms.

If you are interested to explore further, have a look at the following articles: 

Make outreach to residents simple to discover and engage with

Awareness is key to effective consultations. You don't want respondents to complain that they haven't heard about a project until near or even worse after closing. Ensuring residents know about the consultation opportunity usually occurs in a couple of ways. 

Traditional media

Firstly, a more traditional approach in advertising in local press, radio, and posters in local communities and other shopfronts. This is effective for highly visible projects to residents in a particular area. 

Social media

Secondly, social media is as big a part of businesses and private individuals. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and even TikTok have proven to be excellent vehicles for advertising project developments and can be utilised to conduct conversations, answer queries and receive feedback. You can incentivise input as well by entering people into a competition. 

Social media is one of the ways to build a relationship with local residents that can ensure better outcomes for all parties to a development project. Again these activities can be run by a project team or by your platform provider who can organise paid social media campaigns that target local demographic groups by location, age and other attributes.  

Personalised letters

Thirdly, many organisations use a postcard or letter sent to residents and even adjacent communities as deemed appropriate by the project team. This service may be provided by the platform provider or the project team. Here at PlaceChangers, we offer personalised postcards to send consultation invitations. Again it's vital to use easy-to-understand language and visuals in your consultation notice. The other important aspect is to provide easy ways to access the online consultation. This can be done, for example, through short links or QR codes that mobile devices can read. 

Lamp post notices and boards

Finally, media notices on lampposts and other physical spaces can help raise the visibility of the project consultation. These notices work best if they are eye-catching, such as with clear taglines, images, and an easy to remember link or QR code that residents can scan on a mobile device.

Ensure web accessibility of your online consultation

When it comes to engaging residents online, the web accessibility of your online consultation is crucial. As defined by the Web Accessibility Initiative, web accessibility is "means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them.

Online platforms built with web accessibility in mind ensure to include people with disabilities, such as visual or physical limitations. Beyond that, principles underlying web accessibility are generally good practises to raise the ease of use for consultation participants and lead to higher response rates, irritations, and frustrations on behalf of the respondent. 

WCAG 2.1 web accessibility standards

Key aspects to web accessibility are compliance with WCAG 2.1 standards. The WCAG 2.1 standard includes a series of best practices, such as ensuring the user interfaces are consistently sized appropriately for the device type, interface elements never show insufficient contrast, and colours avoid combinations that are hard to distinguish for visual impairments. Typically, digital consultation platforms have those considerations covered from the outset. 

Especially with most map applications, accessibility can be a challenge if not considered head-on by application developers. Here options such as the guided tour functionality in the PlaceChangers engagement tool are a great option. The guided tour helps participants avoid drag and zoom interactions with the map and moves the proposal map automatically. 

Takeaways: Accessibility of online planning consultations

Digital consultations are here to stay. To engage effectively with residents, make it straightforward to leave constructive feedback on your designs (positive and disadvantageous). 

Online engagement tools like PlaceChangers help project teams build trust through open discussion and collaboration to deliver better community outcomes. Dedicated engagement tools are constantly shaped by user feedback and incorporate best practices for the web accessibility of online consultations. 

PlaceChangers provide interactive, digital tools, including mapping tools, that deliver a graphic representation of a site and the proposed development. A designer or planner can drop a pin on the interactive map on the PlaceChangers platform showing where the new development will occur. Residents can leave detailed reviews on proposals through 3D modelling, video, and walkthroughs. 

Accessibility of consultations ensures that complex planning information is easier to access. Accessibility of planning consultations avoids frustrations and the perception that a response is discouraged. A highly accessible consultation can help you generate trust, favourable responses, and a high response rate.  

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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