The power of social media – how it can be used effectively for planning and developers

Posted on
Builders and social media
While social media has been a topic in planning circles since at least 2012,[1] a recent release of data has reinvigorated interest in the subject. A poll of councillors across Great Britain showed substantially positive attitudes towards the use of social media in planning consultations.

Social media can be used to access and mobilise potential supporters of a planning proposal and the good news is that the rules governing consultations are favourable to using social media in this way. Feedback gathered through social media can then be submitted as a supplementary document at the application stage, meaning this is a potentially powerful tool for developers.

Strong support among Councillors

Communications consultancy Remarkable Group polled 1401 councillors across Great Britain on their opinions on the role of social media in planning consultations. The results showed significant support for the use of social media in pre-application consultations and significant projections for growth in deployment of the technology.

Of those asked, 75% of councillors said that social media is an ‘important’ or ‘very important’ engagement tool. Over half (54%) believe that social media carries a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of weight in the consultation process currently. Some 60% of councillors believe property developers should be using social media to engage with the public, and 74% believe responses gathered via social media would add value when reviewing planning applications.

According to the survey, social media is seen to be rapidly increasing in importance over the next three years. Some 60% of respondents believe this, far more than for public exhibitions (22%) and community meetings (30%).

Social media capabilities

Social media may be used to host consultation documents and provide access to them to interested parties. This can facilitate access to the documents from individuals who are active on social media and who could not otherwise access them.

Social media also enables developers to target their messaging at users whose profiles match specified criteria. These criteria can include a user’s home and work location, age, gender, and interests. For example,  a developer of affordable housing could promote their consultation towards young people in the local area with an interest in purchasing a home. Alternatively, a developer of a wind farm could promote the consultation to users who live within the Local Authority area and out-with the immediate vicinity of the development, and who have an interest in supporting renewable energy.

By using social media technology, developers can encourage and facilitate consultation feedback from potential supporters of their application. Developers employing social media must be mindful to conform to the relevant rules and guidance on consultation.

Rules and guidance on consultation

Social media can be deployed by developers in statutory or voluntary pre-application consultation. There is, within the rules and guidance on either form of consultation, scope for social media to benefit prospective applicants. Such techniques are beneficial because they facilitate greater access to and feedback from likely supporters of a development proposal.

Statutory Pre-Application Consultation – Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects.

Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects are an example of development for which pre-application consultation is required by statute. Such consultation is governed by the Planning Act 2008 and by guidance issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG)

The Act simply requires that developers consult Local Authorities while developing a Statement of Community Consultation.[2] This is favourable for developers as we have seen that Local Authority members are generally supportive of the use of social media in consultations.

The DCLG guidance requires that developers take an “inclusive approach” using various means of consultation to access all sections of the community.[3] As such, the use of social media techniques cannot exclude critical comment on proposals.

The guidance also encourages developers to consult people beyond those living in the vicinity of the land where doing so may provide more information on the impacts of the proposals.[4] This is particularly useful for developers where a development has broader benefits to society as a whole – such as easing housing shortage or providing additional energy generating capacity. This guidance enables developers to use social media to access a larger pool of potential supporters.

The DCLG guidance further states that “the Statement of Community Consultation should act as a framework for the community consultation generally, for example, setting out where details and dates of any events will be published”.[5] This view of the SCC as a framework for consultation means that developers may not need to disclose to the Local Authority the targeting criteria which will influence the general attitude of feedback gathered through social media.

Voluntary Pre-Application Consultation

The guidance on voluntary pre-application consultation is more slender. DCLG’s Planning Practice Guidance simply states: The guidance on voluntary pre-application consultation is more slender. DCLG’s Planning Practice Guidance simply states: “Pre-application engagement with the community is encouraged where it will add value to the process and the outcome”.[6] There is no guidance suggesting that the specific social media settings used during the consultation should be disclosed, or that they should influence the Local Authority’s evaluation.

Conclusion

This reinvigorated interest in the role of social media in planning consultations is predicted to shepherd in an increase in deployment of the technology. Councillors strongly value social media feedback, while the rules on deploying the technology are slender. While social media cannot be used to exclude critical comment on a proposal, it is a potentially powerful tool for developers to mobilise their supporters.