Last week we saw the consequences of when a council fails to consult with a local community. The BBC and other media outlets reported on the embarrassment caused after trees were planted on a popular football pitch in Logie Durno, Aberdeenshire. Aberdeenshire Council apologised and admitted that the local community had not been properly engaged with over the council’s plans for their area.
Behind the jokes about the problem being a job for Special Branch and the need for a root and branch review of how the trees came to be planted on a football pitch, we can sympathise with Aberdeenshire, consulting with the public is not always straightforward. Encouraging local residents, community groups and businesses to get directly involved in the planning process or convincing them to take time out from their busy schedules to attend a weekend workshop or an evening seminar can be difficult.
To many, the planning process appears both complicated and irrelevant. There is often a perception among the public that their participation is pointless because their opinion will not be heard and will not affect the outcome. Even if people do become involved there’s also the risk that a Neighbourhood Plan is hijacked by individuals or groups, monopolising the debate with their own agenda rather than representing the interests and ideas of the community as a whole. This is precisely why councils should take a direct role in neighbourhood planning and should proactively use digital channels and web platforms that offer transparency and accountability while also offering the public a greater opportunity to express their views and ideas on an equal footing with other stakeholders.
What can councils do to improve engagement in local communities?
The Logie Durno story highlighted the power of social media to quickly and widely raise public awareness of an issue. Interactive digital channels – across the web and social media platforms – should be more widely adopted by planning authorities as integral engagement and communication tools for promoting and mentoring local consultations and neighbourhood planning outcomes. If properly configured and integrated, digital channels like Facebook and a dedicated website provide both a hub for Neighbourhood Plans and a synergy with the traditional mix of workshops and exhibitions. Incorporating an online registration system with regular mail-outs to registered stakeholders helps to both raise attendance at such public events and provides a consistent and efficient method for sustaining and building engagement levels through subsequent reporting on the outcomes of such events and through the use of online features such as questionnaires, surveys and simple consultation tools.
When used collectively within a coherent and integrated plan of action, social media, email and websites provide councils and communities with a range of powerful tools to identify and communicate with local residents in order to start an informal conversation or to build momentum towards a more formal engagement stage in the planning or Neighbourhood Plan development process. Implementing these channels gives each community 24/7 access to the plan’s progress and allows residents to engage with the process from the comfort of their own homes or workplaces, using platforms with which they are already active participants on a social or business level. Familiarity with the platform helps to build familiarity with the message and helps communities understand their role in shaping the debate and the decision-making process.
Digital platforms also provide transparency and accountability in the planning process. Via well-promoted messages and using clear and engaging content, councils can determine which ideas – whether proposed by the council or by the community – are being positively received, which ones are contentious, and which ones need to go back to the drawing board. All this can be achieved quickly and easily via well configured digital platforms before taking the potentially costly decision – both in terms of money and goodwill – to commit finite time and resources to an idea that hasn’t been tested in the community that it directly affects.
The OpusMap and OpusPromote Toolkit: navigating a path through the trees
OpusMap provides a toolkit approach for councils and communities who want to work together in developing neighbourhood plans. The web part of the toolkit provides a range of structured tools and assets for setting up a neighbourhood plan website. These include:
- Registration tools for signing up residents and businesses via the website and via their preferred social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter
- Interactive mapping tools for locating, linking and promoting ideas in the community to other content and other channels
- Content management and web page management tools for publishing text and image content to existing pages or creating new pages
- Comment and response system for people to give their opinions and offer their own ideas via the website
- Rating system for gauging confidence levels in ideas that have already been submitted and to help prioritise how ideas are taken forward
OpusPromote is provided in conjunction with OpusMap and offers additional tools and support in setting up social media platforms, content and messages for promoting a community’s Neighbourhood Plan via dedicated social media platforms.
When taken together OpusMap and OpusPromote help councils provide a consistent ‘like for like’ and centralised approach to rolling out and mentoring each Neighbourhood Plan in their area. The toolkit provides an evidence base of data collated via each channel and platform and supports both ‘plan by plan’ and ‘aggregated plan’ analysis of engagement levels and of the quality and quantity of stakeholder contributions to the process for taking forward to formal stages in both the Neighbourhood Plan and Local Plan process.
For a community, the Toolkit provides an ‘off the shelf’ system for setting up and managing the online platform and content for their Neighbourhood Plan allowing their committee and nominated representatives to work both autonomously and collaboratively with the council in the Plan’s preparation and in the way the local community is engaged and communicated with.
To find out more about the Toolkit or to get in touch with a member of the OpusMap team, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org