Digital engagement in neighbourhood planning
Authors: Steve Besford-Foster, PlanSupport in association with Neil Kirkland, GoCollaborate Limited
There has been a significant dip in the willingness of communities to engage since COVID. Some of this might be due to a fear of public meetings and mixing, but there’s a continuing strong element of cynicism about government and planning, which is having an impact on NDP engagement. There is also a growing recognition of what digital engagement can bring which many communities are looking to grasp.
However, judging by experience in Cornwall, neighbourhood development plan (NDP) groups typically take very traditional approaches to community involvement, with digital engagement usually being limited to facebook, sometimes twitter, and online survey tools. As a result, important ‘place-shaping’ conversations are limited to formats that are notorious for ‘grandstanding’, abuse and shallow involvement.
While the willingness to engage may have dipped in the wake of COVID-19, communities possess the resilience, and creativity needed to navigate the NDP process and facilitate community engagement. By embracing innovative digital engagement solutions and refining communication strategies, communities can not only overcome the current engagement challenges but also emerge stronger and more connected in the new normal.
So, what are the pillars for successful digital community engagement in creating NDPs?
- Understanding. Groups struggle to understand how digital engagement platforms work but this quickly dissipates. Following a digital platform’s information ‘on-boarding guide’ is vital.
- A clear strategy that is focused on engagement, not just consultation, and is ‘digitally fit for purpose’, backed by a budget that is sensible but adequate to cover both traditional and online channels.
- A stakeholder analysis approach identifying who should be engaged with and how.
- Making equalities and diversity an integral part of the strategy.
- Awareness of what is out there in terms of apps and digital community engagement platforms and the trends in community use of online info and communications.
- A small and active NDP engagement team with a social media aware lead person in charge of each channel to do content creation and management.
- Keeping the team and the campaign active from day one, right through to the referendum.
- Simple ‘explainer’ videos, digital mapping tools such as parish online, and interesting local images to give local appeal.
- Consistency of message and branding in online engagement and traditional leaflets and posters.
- Using social media, leaflets, posters, and business cards featuring QR codes that link to the community engagement platform.
- Real-time evaluation of take up during specific engagement periods so areas of low response can be targeted.
- Avoiding oversimplification of content that could lead to accusations of misleading people.
- Using local ‘movers and shakers’, community leaders and opinion formers to amplify the campaign... including a young person to raise awareness of issues and champion NDP engagement amongst peers via trusted youth channels [Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, word of mouth.
Looking forward, the government is clearly indicating a commitment to neighbourhood development planning through its new neighbourhood policy statements and street vote development orders and given their potential value it is to be hoped that more towns, parishes, and communities will look to take advantage of these and if they do, the latest digital engagement platforms can only make their lives easier.
Learn more here about Steve's experience as a royal town planning institute (RTPI) planning consultant experience using digital platforms in delivering neighbourhood plans.
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