If we think about the impact COVID-19 has had on our daily lives, most of us are now working from home, exercising outside once a day and swathes of the UK workforce is now coming to terms with the concept of furlough. But with many businesses seeking ‘business as usual’, there have been many projects that were due to go out to public consultation with the associated months of planning – leaving village halls booked for consultation events that people cannot now attend.

Given the pressures on project timelines, dates of investment decisions, and depth of work required to present development proposals there appears to be an emerging disconnect between developers and local planning authorities. It comes as senior council officials from multiple local authorities have called upon EDF to delay the next stage of their plans for a new nuclear power station, Sizewell C, until after the COVID-19 pandemic. The rationale for this position stems from fears that Government social distancing measures and the wider concerns around COVID-19 will distract from the need for rigorous review as well as challenge and debate around the proposals for the facility by the community and core stakeholders to inform the application process.

However, local authorities were recently handed new powers to hold public meetings remotely and we are now seeing councils adapting to this outbreak by now hosting committee meetings remotely and moving from crisis management and adaption to business continuity mindsets and the adoption of new ways of working to ensure vital government decisions can continue.

If we take Sizewell as an example, could bullish developers plough through with sensitive proposals and local authorities be too cautious, risking opening rifts in relationships that will be needed through the construction and operation of nationally significant assets? In his parting remarks the Government’s chief planner encouraged ‘innovation and exploring all options of technology to ensure the continuation of effective consultation.’ It is clear, especially now, that ongoing dialogue and engagement with core stakeholders is needed to understand challenges and work together to deploy new ways of bringing developments to committee compliantly.

We are all adapting to new ways of working, whether that be using an ironing board as a desk or getting to grips with video calling. When we consider the options, available there are plenty of opportunities to transform conventional consultation phases into rich digital conversations and at Madano, we are currently helping projects work through these challenges to keep timelines progressing.

Local authorities are fully aware of the danger if we lose the rich engagement and rigour of critique through full and enthusiastic engagement around developments. However, the range of options to maintain, or rethink consultation at this unsettling time can be exciting and enhance discussions with digital exhibitions, presentations to communities with video conferencing and telephone sessions pre-arranged for stakeholders. Whilst this is all very positive, we should still remember that as we transition our consultation activity online to continue the conversation, we should keep in our minds that not all stakeholders choose to, or, have access to internet. We must ensure our consultation activity remains accessible by keeping hard copies, mailing lists and telephones in our strategies.

Most solutions are scalable and flexible, but developers should engage with local planning authorities, and where relevant, the Planning Inspectorate, early in the development of community engagement programmes to ensure that new ways of working are relevant, accessible and appropriate to their proposed development.

Madano advises clients in the development sector currently transitioning their engagement programmes to adapt and embrace the challenges of COVID-19 – if you’re interested in learning more please drop me or the team a line. You can also follow Madano on Twitter.

Blog written by Andrew Turner, Senior Account Director, Madano (Energy and Environment).

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