Going Digital: The Future of Community Engagement

With the world going into lockdown and the advent of social distancing, there have been many inevitable changes to the inner workings of businesses, whether that be increased use of conference calls or putting work on hold. The task that businesses have been faced with, and the property industry included, is to find innovative ways of pushing through the current pandemic.

It is a privilege to be able to continue working in any capacity amongst all of this, and a privilege that carries with it responsibility. Understandably, many developers will be tentative about continuing with projects. However, in order to weather this storm, adaptability is pivotal. In order to get the UK’s economy back up and running, some semblance of normality and preparation for the future needs to be made. The Chancellor’s Budget on 11 March 2020, announced prior to the lockdown, serves as a testament to the importance placed on the development sector, with over £600bn being committed to transport, infrastructure and housing. It seems natural, then, that the sector should be at the forefront of this effort to protect the economy.

Community engagement has long lay at the centre of public planning, so is an important starting point for this road to progress. With the Coronavirus Act being created in response, 2020 has brought in important changes to the day-to-day running of councils, allowing for greater flexibility, and further changes continue to be made. It is, therefore, clear that this same flexibility ought to be applied to community engagement. Although local communities will, understandably, have little appetite for engagement and developments given the current climate, it is important to be realistic. Even following the current state of lockdown, it is highly probably that we shall be left in an interim period of continued social distancing. Measures do, then, need to be taken in response.

Digital engagement is growing. It complements traditional methods of engagement by attracting members of the community who typically don’t engage, with Give My View finding on average a 1,900% increase in levels of feedback. Those who attend the typical church hall public exhibition will recognise that there is a particular demographic more likely to attend: those with the luxury of money, time and knowledge to navigate the world of planning and development. It is in everybody’s best interests to expand beyond this vocal minority, lower barriers to entry and engage more members of the community. This does not mean turning away from engagement via phone and post, but instead using them contrapuntally to ensure the greatest possible benefit to local communities.

There continue to be high hopes for the world post-COVID19. To discount the potential trauma caused by current circumstances, whether to the economy, small businesses, local communities or to individuals themselves, would be unfair. Yet in the face of this difficulty, the spirit of community has shone through. Neighbourhoods have burst into song to keep spirits high in Italy, the UK have stood on their doorsteps to clap for key workers and the NHS, and there has been cooperation on a global scale, as with Cuba’s deployment of doctors. The next step for businesses is to recognise the power of community and achieve some level of symbiosis in order to survive and thrive.

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