Westminster City Council is investing one billion pounds in its regeneration and development programme over the next five years. To deliver this ambitious programme, the council runs dozens of planning consultations every year. These consultations are usually run out of community halls, churches or estate offices and focus on face-to-face engagement with the community. When Covid-19 hit and we were asked to stay at home to keep each other safe, Westco needed to help the council to find a new way to consult the community so they could continue to make progress delivering essential homes – without asking residents to put themselves at risk.
We needed to think differently. With three projects up for consultation, which together would deliver hundreds of new homes, we knew that it was essential to press ahead but we also wouldn’t settle for less than rigorous engagement which gave residents every opportunity to shape proposals in their neighbourhoods.
To bring Westminster’s engagement tools online, we worked with web developers to build bespoke consultation hubs on the council website, commissioned fly-through videos, and developed webinar presentations with architects.
On the more traditional side, we wrote detailed, image-led ‘look-books’ to drop through the doors of neighbouring properties, and we caught those who may fall through the technology gap by using that 90s staple, the telephone. Our team temporarily turned 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.
Across all three projects, this new consultation approach saw a significant increase in engagement. In one case, we spoke to more than ten times as many people as we had in the first round and received twice as much formal feedback. In every case, we spoke to hundreds of residents, where we might usually have reached just dozens.
Webinars proved to be more popular with a wider range of residents than a traditional in-person meeting. We reached people with whom we had never managed to engage before because, with our engagement online, people of working age were able to come to us at a time which suited them. The same was true of our websites – all three had over 650 unique page visits and our online feedback forms proved much more popular than the traditional written comment card.
We not only found that more people attended our online sessions but also that more of them asked questions and engaged actively, perhaps because digital meetings are less easily dominated by one or two individuals.
The phone proved an invaluable part of the engagement and we reached between 75% and 85% of our target audience using phone canvassing alone. We called nearly 450 residents in just four weeks. By offering translated calls, we also had meaningful conversations with residents in their own language, giving us valuable feedback that we would never have gotten otherwise.
Whatever the ‘new normal’ looks like, the way we engage our communities will not return to how it was but grow from the approach we built in these challenging times.