Six steps to success: considerations for consultation

Colleagues around a display board in a village hall

Whether it’s a garden village, a new housing development, or a smaller scale project, a thorough consultation is more than just a nice-to-have.

People make places. Giving people a say in what’s going on in their area is a vital part of creating and building sustainable and viable communities. And they actively want to participate in these conversations too.

According to data from citizen engagement platform Commonplace, 76% think that ‘people need to be given a greater say over new developments in their local area’. However, 48% of their respondents said they had never been aware of a local planning consultation.

This is consistent with findings colleagues encountered when researching people’s awareness of local plans in their areas: hardly any young adults engaged in this process.

This is where effective communication can help. Identifying and engaging the people who might be interested in – and impacted by – your proposals, informing them of the plans, and giving a forum for feedback is the backbone of any successful consultation.

Shaped by our principles of clarity, connecting communities, and two-way communication, here are our six areas to consider when planning your consultation.

#1 Be clear on what you’re consulting on

You need to ensure you are clear on exactly what you want feedback on. What can people influence? Don’t ask for comment on anything that isn’t open to debate or change.

For example, if you know a housing scheme will be going ahead on a particular site regardless, it’s unfair to ask people whether they want to see housing there. You could, however, ask them what style of houses they want, what size or types of tenure, or ask for ideas on how to use any public open space.

This is an honest way of empowering people, where they can really make a difference.

#2 Shape your narrative

Your team and partners will have a clear vision about your scheme or project, but you need to take people outside of this circle on a journey to understand that with you.

Identify your key messages, explain any research or reasoning behind your plans, and set out all the information to allow people to make an informed decision. It is important to arm people with all the knowledge they need to make their own considered and educated response.

#3 The right people, in the right order

Once you’ve outlined your proposals, communicating your vision is key. But you need to ensure that the right messages reach the right people in the right order, by researching, compiling and prioritising a comprehensive stakeholder and community database.

Top of your list may be political stakeholders and town or parish councils, local businesses within the area, as well as chambers of commerce and other business or community support organisations.

Direct neighbours or residents near to the proposed area are also crucially important, but, additionally, you should extend that circle to consider who else might be impacted.

Think outside the box. Engaging special interest groups, educational establishments and businesses can unlock different insights that would otherwise be easily missed.

#4 Choosing the right channels

Understanding who your audience is helps you choose the right channels to reach them.

Many people recognise a consultation as an in-person event. This is a great way to reach certain people, and the government has recently published guidance for Low Traffic Neighbourhoods which states this as an important method. But there are other, arguably better, ways to share your proposals, particularly for those who are less able to attend an in -person meeting.

Direct communication with key stakeholders or groups – such as 1-to-1 meetings, emails or letter drops – will ensure your messages reach specific contacts. Using local media, social media and email newsletters extends your messages to wider groups.

Whichever channels you choose, and there will be many, you need to ensure that they align with where your audience is to encourage thorough and representative feedback.

#5 Make it easy to capture their views

Core to any good consultation is its survey. Getting this right will determine the quality of responses that you get to inform your next steps.

Consider what personal information you need – postcode data helps you understand where your respondents are from, and asking about their relationship with the project helps give more context to their views.

The survey questions will vary depending on your project, but for every consultation you want a mixture of question types to give you qualitative and quantitative feedback. Ask both open and closed questions to gain a diverse range of insights.

And consider how accessible your survey is. Not everyone will be able to complete an online form, so you might want to offer an alternative contact method such as project telephone for people to call and request a printed version, or a project email for people to share their comments and concerns outside of the survey structure.

#6 Outline the next steps

Once the survey is closed, your job isn’t complete. You need to ensure that you are sharing what the next steps are and what the timeline for this is too. People have taken time to provide valuable feedback, so it is only right to share updates and help them to understand how their feedback is being used.

Informing the media, providing e-newsletter updates and social media posts are great ways to do this. You might also want to consider direct communication to key stakeholders or groups.

Where does Distinctive come in?

A public consultation and stakeholder engagement exercise has many moving parts. This blog covers some of the factors to consider, with many more besides that will be bespoke to your plans.

We have proven experience in delivering successful consultations, including on proposals for 70 affordable, sustainable homes in Mid Devon and consultation and engagement support for Gravity, the UK’s first commercial smart campus.

Having an experienced team on board not only delivers a quality consultation, but it also gives you peace of mind that all aspects of this complex part of your project are taken care of, allowing you to focus on the day job.

If you have a project you’d like to discuss, get in touch with our team.

Written by Arianne Smart.


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