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  • Matthew Richards

Building Trust: Engaging the “silent majority” with tech

WPA Members’ Blog

In his Good Growth report, Professor Travers explores the breakdown of public trust in planning and development. In my experience, this is most clearly evidenced at the planning stage of a development.

For anyone who has ever attended a public exhibition, one of the criticisms most frequently heard is that a member of the public’s views on a planning proposal will not make a difference because the untrustworthy developer will most likely blithely ignore anyone who stands in the way of their pursuit of profit!

For many members of the public, there is a sense of disenfranchisement from the planning process, and that expensive developments happen unto their neighbourhoods without regard for the preferences of the local community.

At a time when the views of the public have more weight than ever on planning decisions (and local authorities expect consultations to be thorough and representative) this presents an interesting dilemma because who ultimately speaks for the local community? Is it the local amenity society? The ward councillors? The residents who have bothered to turn up to a public exhibition on a Wednesday evening? Or perhaps none of the above?

In many consultations it is often the “vocal minority” who dominate the planning process. And in many parts of central London, this minority is typically led by those who have the time, confidence and fluency to engage in a dialogue with either the developer or the local authority.

Let’s be clear – the views of this vocal minority are very important. In my experience, the members of local amenity societies, for instance, are people who care deeply about their communities and possess expert local knowledge. With this in mind, public affairs companies are essential members of project teams to help manage and interpret engagement with local stakeholders.

However, beyond this vocal minority there is a silent majority, who are legitimate participants in Westminster’s various communities, but whose views are often bypassed. This is primarily because busy parents and professionals have neither the time nor the inclination to attend in-person meetings. Furthermore, traditional methods of consultation struggle to connect with hard-to-reach groups, such as the elderly and non-English language speakers.

The lack of engagement via traditional methods is totally unsatisfactory considering the importance of recent consultations in Westminster regarding the transformation of Oxford Street and the planning policy framework for the entire borough, not to mention all the major commercial schemes in the pipeline.

So how can we ask for the views of the silent majority so that they can help better shape our built environment? With technology – obviously!

Firstly, with the predominance of smart phones and people’s proclivity to absorb social media, digital platforms can effectively reduce the barriers to community engagement.

Through visually-engaging and gamified online tools, a more demographically-diverse community base can be engaged in the planning process, enabling community members to feel a sense of ownership and positive investment in development schemes. Further to this, an online tool can also more easily explain in a visually stimulating format the trade-offs inherent in the planning system.

Technology can also be used to engage with communities where English is not the main spoken language. In the City of London, for instance, Built-ID is consulting on the future of Petticoat Lane Market with a digital platform that reads left to right and also right to left, in Urdu and Arabic.

At a time when the office and retail markets, and the habits of customers are changing fundamentally, the ability to tap into the large amounts of data that can be collected via digital consultation tools will be critical in designing and curating the future built environment – whether we’re talking about the transformation of Oxford Street or a new office scheme in Mayfair, Soho or St James’s.

Ultimately, if the property industry takes advantage of the digital technology that already exists in order to engage with local communities, and consistently demonstrates that their feedback has a demonstrable impact on the evolution of a development project, then trust will be built, and progress will be achieved.

Matthew Richards Chief Engagement Officer, Built-ID

Matthew Richards joins Built-ID as their new Chief Engagement Officer. He is leading on the implementation of the PropTech company’s recently-launched web app, Give My View, which is designed to attract engagement with a demographically diverse community base, enabling consultation with more than just a vocal minority.

With Give My View, social media ads link you though to a sophisticated online platform with interactive timelines and digestible facts about a development, and polls where voting has an actionable impact on the resulting planning proposal.

Prior to joining the award-winning start-up, Matthew spent almost 10 years at leading integrated firm, Four Communications, where he was a director in the public affairs practice. Matthew is a specialist in providing strategic advice to senior members of the property industry, and has a track record for helping deliver successful planning decisions for some of London’s most significant schemes in recent years.


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