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Community engagement in Covid-times

When we got the word that council staff were being asked to work from home in mid-March, most of the communications team were neither surprised nor particularly worried. After moving to hot-desking and Surface Pros last year, the infrastructure for an agile work environment was already in place.

However, as a community engagement manager, these technological solutions did not immediately address my main concern – how were we going to get out and engage the community? My team run upwards of twenty public consultations about new housing developments every year, each one delivering anywhere from one to over a hundred new homes. In usual times, these are run out of community halls, churches or estate offices. We focus on building relationships face-to-face, meeting stakeholders and presenting exhibition boards to residents, talking people through proposals and collecting their thoughts on comment cards. While the council’s bigger regeneration projects were already fitted out for the web, online engagement hadn’t been a priority for my team’s smaller sites. 

Then along came ‘Rona. We could no longer rent a community hall and meet residents in person. We couldn’t even leave the house! As everyone came to terms with this new reality, my team took a rare break from public consultations and reassessed. Over March and April, we used the unusual luxury of time to look at our projects and create new engagement plans tailored to each specific community. Since then, we’ve thrown everything at building new ways to engage our residents, creating tools that give them every opportunity to tell us what they think about our proposals without leaving their homes.

This month, we are testing the results of this hard work for the first time. At the end of June, we are launching two significant consultations, both the last opportunity for residents to give us their views before we take the proposals to planning. These consultations won’t look anything like the last round of engagement.

In bringing our engagement tools online, we’ve worked with web developers to build bespoke consultation hubs on the council website, commissioned fly-through videos, and developed webinars with architects. On the more traditional side, we’ve written detailed, image-led ‘look-books’ to drop through the doors of the neighbouring properties, and we will catch those who may fall through the technology gap by using that 1990s staple, the telephone. Our team will soon turn call centre, phoning the most affected households to talk them through the proposals, and, in some cases, offering a call with a translator to give those who don’t speak English a chance to have a technical discussion about daylight/sunlight reports or traffic management plans.

Although we can’t get out in the community, what we’re hoping to see over the next few weeks is that our multi-faceted approach will bring the community to us. While we won’t really know how successful these consultations will be until they are over, I have a suspicion that we might find ourselves with more feedback from a more diverse range of people than ever before.

Harriet Shone is Communications & Engagement Manager at Westminster City Council

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