Much has been written over the past months on “the new normal” and how various industries are adapting to this strange new world we find ourselves in. The development industry in particular has faced significant challenges. However, with lockdown measures being relaxed across the UK, it has also become clear that the new world we are emerging into will be forever changed from what we once knew.
This change has been felt in the planning system – considered by some to be overly bureaucratic and rigid (whether this is a fair accusation will likely depend on your point of view!), lockdown has forced local authorities and the wider industry to adapt to become more flexible, imaginative and fluid. A case-in-point in the Scottish planning system is through the changes seen to Pre-Application Consultation (PAC).
The statutory requirement for applicants proposing any Major development to host at least one public consultation event prior to submission has been tested several times over the last 3 months. How can you hold a public consultation event when public gatherings are no longer allowed? The Scottish Government responded to this uncertainty by issuing guidance in April, setting out guidelines for digital public consultation and advising that each event must at a minimum include a free, publicly available website, and a live and interactive web-based consultation facility.
The industry has subsequently adapted and a number of successful digital engagement events have been held throughout Scotland, with local authorities and developers making effective use of a variety of online platforms including dedicated websites, virtual consultation rooms, and interactive comment facilities.
Feedback received to date from clients and members of the public on these digital events has been positive. There seems to be a general consensus of opinion that consultation through online sources has had a positive effect on engagement levels, perhaps due to a combination of greater accessibility, appealing to a larger public demographic, and the ease of online advertising. Given the importance of good-quality public consultation to the planning system, the significance of this cannot be understated.
Notwithstanding this, it must be acknowledged that not everyone has access to the internet and therefore online-only events in the future post-Covid world may not always be the most appropriate solution. In addition, we are aware of concerns in some quarters relating to the accountability and transparency of online consultation, and as such this will need to be carefully managed. There is also the social element – online-only consultation is regarded by some as no substitute for face-to-face meetings with members of the public. While this can be facilitated to some extent through video conferencing apps such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, there will clearly be a role for some element of human interaction going forward once lockdown measures have been lifted.
What is clear is that the digital revolution in planning has been accelerated by the current crisis. While there are obvious advantages to using digital consultation tools, in the future it seems reasonable to assume that a hybrid model including online consultation and targeted face-to-face meetings will likely be the most appropriate solution for community engagement.
If implemented successfully, this will have a positive impact on engagement levels and will allow for more effective conversations to be held between developers and stakeholders. Good public consultation helps to smooth the way through the planning process by enabling positive relationships with key community stakeholders, identifying elements of support within the local community, and allowing an opportunity for potential issues to be resolved prior to submission. Improvements to public consultation methods can therefore only be a good thing for developers.
The importance of development activity to the wider economy is well documented and it will be critical in helping to ensure a swift economic recovery post-Covid. The planning system as gatekeeper to the development industry has a vital role to play in the continued functioning of the economy, and as such it is encouraging to see how the planning system has responded to these ongoing challenges with an agility many would have doubted possible prior to lockdown. However, there is still more which can be done. It will be important for the industry to embrace this trend towards digitisation and continue to develop innovative measures to make the planning system more accessible, flexible, and efficient.
We look forward to engaging with our clients, Scottish Government, local authorities, members of the public and other key stakeholders on shaping the future of the post-Covid Scottish planning system going forward. In the meantime, we continue to advise our clients on the implications of ongoing changes and temporary legislation as announced by Scottish Government.
We also have a dedicated in-house Engagement team who can assist clients with all of their online consultation needs via our i-Site platform. Please get in touch if you have any queries and we would be delighted to assist.