On 17 August 2020 PAS hosted a second round table discussion on the above theme, welcoming 15 participants from a diverse range of backgrounds, and using the Zoom video conferencing platform. Participants represented community councils, the third sector, planning authorities, planning consultants, academia and community planning partnerships. A facilitator-led discussion was used to address questions relating to online community engagement within the built and natural environment. 

The following summary provides an outline of the key themes drawn from this hour-long discussion, representing the views and experiences of those individuals who attended the session. It is hoped that these round table sessions will be used to enable the sharing of best practice, and the identification of areas where further research could be undertaken.

The points below are from initial introductory thoughts participants were invited to share. 

Challenges 

  • Community councils would like more support from their local authorities to enable them to perform their role effectively during this period, especially in how to use online engagement techniques effectively. 
  • Community councils were often already struggling with limited personnel pre-Covid and this has often been exacerbated by members being drawn into other Covid- related volunteering or other commitments. 
  • Some local authorities are advising community councils not to hold their meetings online and/or not to use zoom (which is often felt to be the easiest to use and most intuitive video conference platform). 
  • Planning consultants often feel they are engaging with the same narrow sections of society for statutory consultations held by traditional methods. 
  • Rural broadband capacity can be a barrier to online participation. 

Opportunities 

  • Some community councils are already meeting online. 
  • When community councils are holding meetings online, there is often better attendance. However, a good level of analogue publicity is needed initially to make people aware of the opportunity to attend online. 
  • With so many people using – in particular Zoom – for informal social interactions, the transition to more formal statutory meetings is often easier. 
  • Developing new digital platforms/toolkits dedicated to community engagement in planning and placemaking. 
  • Community planning ward forum meetings are seeing better attendance online, using a one-hour maximum format; however, the social and networking element can be lost. 
  • For statutory consultation processes led by applicants and/or planning consultants, online engagement could offer the opportunity to reach a wider range of participants. 
  • AECOM virtual town/village hall platform has been an effective resource for statutory planning consultations using google analytics alongside. It suggests significantly greater participation of 25-35 age group in Local Development Plan consultations. It is important to offer the opportunity of dialogue with local authority representatives via the live chat feature.

Open Discussion 

  • Online has become the new normal for community engagement and there is now the opportunity to focus on measures to promote a high-level of inclusivity that may have been overlooked so far – and also in traditional community engagement – such as signing, captioning on videos, focusing on the use of plain English, and ensuring the legibility of engagement material for laptop/tablet use. 
  • There may be a lot of learning to benefit from in terms of online community engagement from organisations outwith planning who have been working in a dispersed manner on a longer-term basis using video-conferencing platforms. 
  • There is a good range of interactive online tools to replicate techniques that may be used in analogue engagement to allow participants to sketch out and record their ideas, eg interactive whiteboards/flipcharts/post-it notes, as well as map-based platforms for plotting ideas and data. 
  • Community councils desperately need more support to develop expertise and confidence in digital engagement. In some cases, communication with their communities is falling by the wayside. Some community councils are already using social media effectively – one has a team of four managing its various platforms. However, overall support and training is needed across the community council sector. 
  • Low and varying by area community council grants are another matter of concern with regard to securing training and learning new skills. 
  • Some local authorities are supporting community councils to conduct their business online (though in some cases Zoom is not allowed). 
  • Digital exclusion should always be borne in mind – a recent Age Scotland report suggested that over a significant number of those over 65 do not have online access. The Connecting Scotland initiative which provides IT equipment to those in need was referenced. 
  • Online engagement is a key opportunity to pull in the less obvious seldom-heard groups, especially young parents who may be working full time. 
  • From a planning consultant/applicant perspective, online engagement needs to be affordable and attractive to clients. Applicants with smaller sites are unlikely to want to factor in the more expensive platforms. 
  • The question of how to attract/recruit people to turn up to/participate in online engagement was raised … how can the buzz of a traditional event, when an engagement team would be onsite/in the local area, be created online? 
  • With regard to moving towards community-led plan/Local Place Plan engagement online, it was noted that Zoom break-out rooms can easily replicate traditional themed discussion groups. 
  • Local newspapers should be asked to help promote all engagement processes whether online or traditional (the standard statutory paid for advert is not sufficient). 
  • There may be scope to slightly re-think statutory pre-application consultation conducted online, eg offer separate or follow on break-out room discussions on key topics. 
  • Can online community engagement ever be as effective as real-life events in terms of quality and experience, as well as technical or practical limitations? 
  • Trust is the main issue: an online platform is always “controlled” by someone. That affects both content and interaction. 

Good Practice examples

The following are examples of good practice tools for online community engagement, positive online engagement processes and online resources that were mentioned by participants in the discussion or added to the Zoom chat function during the event. 

Recommendations 

  • Consider the need for official guidelines relating to inclusivity in online engagement aimed at all stakeholders in the planning system and other place-based engagement practitioners. 
  • Research how effectively community councils across Scotland are able to function currently and whether they are using online video conferencing platforms. 
  • Consider if and how further support to community councils could be provided to facilitate them to undertake their statutory duties effectively. 
  • Community councils should raise their concerns and support needs with Scottish Government and the RTPI.