Public consultations are a core part of our statutory planning process. They are essential for organisations seeking planning permission, development consent or updates to planning policy documents.

They are in place to:

  • Explain proposals to the public
  • Describe any impacts on the local area (positive and negative)
  • Gather opinion and feedback
  • Address concerns

I have managed a number of public consultations during my career and always take an interest in how others approach them.

My local parish council is currently running a public consultation about an update to the local Neighbourhood Plan. I found this out after a leaflet had been posted through my door – so far, so good. Unfortunately, I spotted some simple mistakes. I have outlined them below, so that if you are planning to run your own consultation, you can avoid them.

Six mistakes the consultation made
  1. Poor graphics on the leaflet: The front of the leaflet included a captioned map of the area. There was no key and it was hard to follow. The captions all involved technical language.

Solution: Graphics are a great way to communicate a message. They should be clear to follow, large enough to understand and include simple language. 

  1. The leaflet did not go into detail: The main copy mentions amends to three policies and the introduction of two new ones. No further information, beyond the names of these policies, is provided.

Solution: A simple, one-sentence description about what these policies include or their changes would be sufficient at this stage, with guidance on how to find more information (and a referenced location).

  1. The leaflet arrived one week before the website went live: With no detail (point 2), recipients had to seek information elsewhere. Unfortunately, the website was not available.

Solution: When running a consultation ensure that communications are planned to coincide with key milestones. If you have a call to action, you need to make sure it works. The majority of people will try to find out more information straight away. They are unlikely to try again. Many will not seek out further information at all. In the interests of transparency, you should include important information in these initial communications.

  1. The website address on the leaflet did not work: Not only was the website unavailable initially but the link was incorrect (leading to an error page). One web search for the Parish Council and look through its website later, and I found what I needed. How many recipients would do this (my guess is not many)?

Solution: At proofing stage always check website links, email addresses and phone numbers. People are less likely to research an alternative.

  1. Poor documentation: Once I had found the additional material there was a report that was 100+ pages. This will discourage comment, particularly without a useful summary document. It was one of many reports stored on the site as a list of links, with no search functionality.

Solution: A simple summary document should accompany the main report. This could take the form of a series of bullet points or an FAQ. A short animation or video, or descriptive graphic would also help to communicate the key messages effectively.  Search functionality that reviews content as well as what is on the web-page would make it easier to find information. 

  1. Data capture was generic and open: Recipients were invited to send an email with comments to a generic address.

Solution: Assuming you get the responses, this is good for qualitative data. However, it has some problems. Some may find the lack of personalisation off-putting. For me, the main issue is that it is the equivalent of an open comment box. Some respondents may find it hard to articulate their thoughts or will be put off by this. A simple, short, quantitative survey will solve the problem. It makes responses easier and helps summarise and reiterate what the recipient is being asked to comment on. An open comment box can be used alongside this, if desired.

Why does this matter?

The ultimate aim of public consultations is to gain trust and support for your project from the communities affected.

The problem with mistakes like these is that they can create mistrust in the process. This in turn may result in negative sentiment toward the proposals. Most importantly, some of the problems outlined above create a barrier to responses, which should be the key driver for a consultation.

My first blog talked about the issues with the construction sector’s reputation. It highlighted public consultations as an area where companies can go wrong. For many people, this may be their first or only interaction with a developer and the reputational damage can be huge, for all involved in the process.

Image by Calum Mac via Unsplash.

2 Replies to “Public consultations: starting with a negative

  1. Conventional public consultation processes on built environment planning issues relying on leaflets, townhall meetings and conventional websites often tend to favour IT-savvy, educated, and/or confident local residents. Many people may often hear about planning proposals via Facebook pages, Twitter, hyperlocal websites, etc, so it is vital – as you say, Dan – to have working web connections plus the ability to provide detailed responses on specific aspects.

    Gathering feedback could be more inclusive through the use of mobile/social technologies. I recall urban redevelopment proposals for a district in Birmingham using a solution called “YouCanPlan” which allowed users to ‘pin’ comments on a shared map of the area (the developers, StickyWorld [disclosure: past client], continue to support local consultation processes – working on a junction improvement project in Southend recently). Virtual charrette planning workshops could also be used (I blogged about this in 2009 – see http://blog.pwcom.co.uk/2009/07/22/towards-the-virtual-charrette/).

    Such technologies could be more inclusive, particularly for those deterred by the need to make formal responses at townhall meetings, via responses to open-ended questions, etc.

    1. Thanks for your comments Paul. Interesting to see the use of virtual workshops. There seems to be a lag between widespread adoption and the technology being available, based on your blog being written nearly 10 years ago!

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