Engaging the ‘silent majority’ in planning: is digital the answer?

It has long been a concern that traditional planning consultation methods do not adequately capture the views of the majority.

Instead, they tend to be dominated by individuals with certain characteristics – typically older people or retirees, with high disposable income and social capital, and the time and means to attend in person.

This is partially because traditional planning consultation methods, such as public exhibitions, mainly involve individuals physically attending events at pre-specified places and times.

Younger people, students, people with disabilities, and working families with or without children, may find it difficult to attend and engage with such consultation methods.

In addition to this – people are also more likely to engage with the planning system when they are opposed to something.  Research by Shelter found that people opposed to local housebuilding were three times more likely to actively oppose an application than supporters were to actively support it (21% compared to 7%).

However, the majority of people surveyed were actually supportive or neutral regarding local house building.  This means that in many cases, there is a ‘silent majority’ – people whose voices are not being heard by the planning system.

This ‘silent majority’ often includes young people and others who may have the most to gain from new housing, employment and other benefits created by local developments.

In the rest of this blog, we consider the potential of social media and digital apps to make the planning system more accessible, inclusive and representative.

The potential of social media

Social media is everywhere – and as such it has a huge potential to reach and engage people from all walks of life.

Through adverts or posts in relevant groups, information about developments can be shared, with likes and comments providing feedback.  Short questionnaires or polls can also be administered to help gauge public opinion on a range of matters, such as locations, layouts and designs.

At present, social media is not a widely used planning consultation method – however, there is support for it to become so.

In 2016, a YouGov survey explored local councillors’ attitudes towards the use of social media during public consultation.  It found that:

  • 75% of councillors felt that social media was an important or very important engagement tool
  • 74% believed that social media would add value when reviewing planning applications
  • 60% felt that developers should be doing more to engage with local communities through social media
  • 60% believed social media will increase in importance as a public engagement tool over the next three years

It has been argued that social media is a much more relevant way to share information and consult on development proposals, particularly for young people.

It also has the potential to help overcome many of the time and accessibility barriers that prevent people from attending traditional ‘time and place’ consultation events.  And it has an incredible potential reach too – with Facebook having a total of 44 million active users and Twitter 14 million.

There are, however, some concerns – particularly regarding the verification of an individuals’ locality and the public management of negative comments, particularly as users can remain anonymous.  The potential for cyberactivism against a development and the spread of ‘fake news’ are also concerns.  Social media training would no doubt be required for those using social media to consult on developments.

Innovative apps

In addition to social media, digital apps offer an exciting new way for people to engage with the planning system.

Hailed as ‘Tinder’ for urban planning, CitySwipe is a new digital tool being used in Santa Monica’s downtown area to learn citizens’ preferences and concerns about the city’s urban core.  It enables local residents to swipe left or right to indicate their preferences regarding various different urban development scenarios.  For example, users may be asked to choose between different types of outdoor seating.  The app also covers attitudes towards things such as walking, bike lanes, housing and other such areas of interest to urban planners.

If CitySwipe is Tinder, then TrueViewVisuals can be likened to the Augmented Reality (AR) mobile gaming app ‘Pokémon Go’.  AG is a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite view of both.  TrueViewVisuals makes use of this to enable users to use their mobile device to view proposed developments in existing locations and is thus particularly useful in assessing their potential visual impact.

Bootlegger is a mobile app originally designed to film live music, which is now also being applied to the urban planning context.  It enables users to collaborate and share their footage with others, and edit them into a single video.   In Berwick-upon-Tweed, Bootlegger has been used to enable members of the public to make their own ­films regarding planning proposals and the neighbourhood area and share them with others.

ChangeExplorer uses location data to provide users with ‘push notifications’ when they enter a geographic location that is subject to redevelopment plans.  Users can then view and comment on the plans, making it much easier for local residents and visitors to have their say on planning decisions.  It has been used successfully by North Tyneside Council, where it was found to be “an effective tool in encouraging participants to think about what they would like to change and for them to feel empowered in raising relevant issues”.

Enhance and evolve

These are just a handful of the ways in which technology can be used to engage young people and others within the ‘silent majority’.  It is an area which is developing all of the time – as recent reports by the Scottish Government, Future City Catapult and the RTPI show.

It also comes at a time where there is wider discussion of the need to make planning more inclusive.  In order to do this, it is essential that the views captured by planning consultations truly represent the needs and preferences of all local residents.

Of course, online engagement cannot replace the need for traditional consultation approaches and techniques entirely.  Instead, they should complement one another, offering both an enhancement and an evolution of the current planning system.  And in doing so, the planning system can meet both the needs and expectations of an increasingly digital world.


 Follow us on Twitter to discover which topics are interesting our research team.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.