A brave new world – virtual meetings are just the start of ways for councils to use technology
Ellis Wiggins, Associate Director – Home Counties
COVID-19 brought much of our day-to-day existence to a halt. But in lots of aspects, it kicked into life a change in many of our working and living practices, forcing us to adapt to keep the world turning.
Public institutions, and a significant proportion of local government, also quickly found themselves having to embrace strange and alien technology which for many of us is as new-fangled as television or the internal combustion engine. Hesitant at first, councils took up the use of virtual meetings, and have discovered how much easier it is not to have to head across to the town hall and sit in an over or under-heated conference room for yet another working group or sub-committee. Virtual meetings have opened up the debates in local government for members of the public who had neither the means nor inclination to travel for miles for a single item buried at the bottom of an agenda.
At Cratus, we saw early on an opportunity to transform how the industry carries out public consultations. Cratus Engage, our digital consultation tool, allows residents to view information and videos, and provide their feedback on a development scheme via an interactive map. At the same time, the public can still take part in a consultation in the traditional way if they choose – widening the audience of people who share their views.
This innovation is particularly welcome in planning, the area of council proceedings which undoubtedly motivates most residents’ interest. Virtual planning committees enable local people to drop in and out of a meeting to watch and speak on that one application they care about. The ease of listening in, with a cup of tea on the sofa, could even encourage a council taxpayer to watch more of their elected representatives in action. Though not a local authority meeting, the virtual examination of South Oxfordshire’s Local Plan was watched by over 800 people in its first week. This is far more than would ever be motivated to attend a physical Examination in Public.
Councils should be encouraged to view virtual proceedings as something that is here to stay. This is not to say that they should replace face-to-face meetings. It is important when bringing in technological changes that residents who are less tech-savvy are still able to use a council and its service in an analogue fashion. People should not be excluded from the democratic process simply because they are not confident with new technologies or do not have easy access to the Internet. A hybrid system, however, similar to that currently used in Parliament, with participants being able to virtually take part in a ‘real’ meeting, should become the new normal for local government.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of ways in which local authorities could embrace technology and digital ways of working to open up their proceedings to the public while becoming more efficient. An examination of all the different areas of local government could fill a book, so it is worth looking at just a few examples relevant to planning departments.
A view from above
It is hard enough for members of the public to locate the right planning application on a planning portal or find the right documents, let alone identify the site area on a map and compare what it looks like now to the finished development. Instead, councils could use digital mapping tools, enabling residents to use interactive aerial views to locate a planning application, access the submission paperwork and the consultation, and see how their area could be affected. Some authorities are already using this to great effect for consultations on emerging Local Plans.
Seeing things differently
Virtual Reality (VR) technology, once found solely in science fiction, is now a reality for gamers around the world. But it can also have a practical application in our day-to-day lives. Architects are already using VR to visualise a new building. Why not have planning committee members and residents use VR headsets to conduct a virtual walk-through of a proposed new development? Instead of depending on elevation drawings, they would instead get a real feeling of what it would be like to be at street level next to a multi-storey block of flats.
Our world is social
An even simpler tool, which is almost a compulsion for many of us, is underused when it comes to planning. Social media connects people from around the globe and gives them access to instant news and communication. Yet councils rarely, if ever, use social media to advertise a consultation on a planning application, meaning that too many applications go through without local communities having their say.
A whole new world
None of these technologies are just out of development. They are just a fraction of the ways of working that local government could adopt.
The global pandemic has opened the eyes of officers and councillors to how technological change can create a wealth of possibilities. If the will is there, ever greater value for money, better community interaction, and a renewed sense of trust in public institutions can be forged in the heat of the COVID revolution.