Written by Edward Taylor, PlanSpace.uk
For many Neighbourhood Planning groups, the Covid-19 virus will have led to a slowing down in activity. Lockdown has made it difficult for forums and Parish and Town Councils to meet up and face to face engagement has had to be curtailed. One new group in Liverpool had 3 events planned for the end of March, all of which had to be cancelled and another group decided not to send out leaflets door to door because residents were concerned about the health risks involved.
Local Planning Authorities are often less able to respond and the Government has announced that there will be no Neighbourhood Planning Referendums before May 2021, a decision that does not look like being reversed.
This all presents a challenge and makes it much harder to keep momentum which can be important.
For any Neighbourhood Plan to progress there must be engagement and the people driving them have to be able to meet up to take decisions. One possibility of course is to hold meetings and engagements online. More and more people are getting used to using platforms like Zoom or Google Hangouts or Microsoft Teams which allow people to not only see one another but also to share what is on their screens and chat and record and review the meeting later. These platforms offer a way for people to get involved in debate around the various issues in an emerging Plan.
Another popular platform is CommonPlace. Many councils are currently using this to allow people to have their say about walking and cycling in their neighbourhoods. So far in Merseyside for example 4 authorities: Knowsley, Liverpool, Sefton and Wirral have taken up the offer. Liverpool’s CommonPlace page is found at https://liveablestreetsliverpool.commonplace.is/ The way it works is that you register and log onto the site and then using a map not unlike Google Maps you identify a place you wish to comment on and then plant a flag and submit your comment. You can also ‘like’ other people’s comments. The platform is currently being offered to Councils for free so it may be possible for Neighbourhood Planning groups to access it as well.
Some sort of web presence would normally be recommended in more normal times and an effective web strategy combining social media with a website can provide many effective ways for people to engage with an emerging Neighbourhood Plan. There are of course limits to online engagement. Firstly people may not even know you have a website and you may have trouble finding out people’s e-mail addresses assuming they’re even happy to hand them over. And of course there are people who do not engage much or at all online.
In any circumstances, an online presence needs to work alongside an offline engagement and even if under lockdown the balance has to shift, an offline presence is still important. With reasonable precautions leafleting houses should be safe enough but in the absence of face to face meetings the leaflets will have to do a lot more. They can’t just tell people to look online, they also need to give people other ways of having their say such as via questionnaires and surveys.
Another process which is tricky to replicate online is co-design which is where the design of an area or a site or building is done though cooperation within a particular community with design professionals typically taking more of an advisor or facilitator role. Co-design often involves groups of people crowding around plans and being encouraged to be hands on and drawing their ideas directly onto plans. There is huge potential for co-design processes such Planning for Real or Design Charettes in neighbourhood planning which perhaps needs more recognition but undertaking it under lockdown presents a significant challenge.
There may well be many other challenges. We would be interested in knowing your thoughts. How has Covid-19 affected your Neighbourhood Plan process and how have you adapted? Contact us to share your experience.