Whilst the world is still reeling from the effects of Covid-19, many can begin to see the shift in the focus from managing the immediate effects of lockdown on everyday life (both personal and business) to working out new procedures which respond to the current situation whilst moving forward.
Infrastructure planning is no different. Given the specific requirements written into legislation for physical interaction (either meetings to take decisions, or making documentation available to inspect in person for example), there has been a halt on progress during the last few weeks. However, with new legislation coming through in England and Wales to temporarily loosen the requirements for local planning authorities, there are still many areas that need legislation amended to permit forward progress - one of these areas is the consenting of DCO's.
The National Infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA) has authored a paper (Development Consent Orders and the Coronavirus Pandemic), which has been submitted to MHCLG, making recommendations for solutions to keep the DCO process moving.
" Today's infrastructure consenting projects are the building blocks of our lives tomorrow and beyond and so to the extent possible and while maintaining openness and fairness in these emergency times, we should seek to maintain fair and effective progress in delivering sustainable nationally significant infrastructure." paragraph 44, NIPA; Development Consent Orders and the Coronvirus Pandemic
The paper sets out a number of recommendations, including specific points in relation to consultation and engagement to meet the statutory requirements as set out in the Planning Act 2008.
As members of NIPA, the team at Thirty4/7 fully agree with the recommendations set out, which largely focus on addressing the requirement to make documentation (i.e. the SoCC/application documentation) available physically in a publicly accessible location (of which there are currently none).
In addition to some relaxation of the legislation as required to make it possible to comply without contravening the rules around Covid-19, it is encouraging to see - in the NIPA response, as well as more broadly across industry - the emphasis on online and digital engagement techniques to make consultation more open and accessible. Online meetings, digital consultation events and interactive materials are becoming the focus, which is certainly going to enhance the likelihood that a younger demographic will become involved with and influence infrastructure planning in a way that has perhaps not been apparent previously.
This of course needs to be balanced with the fact that not everyone is computer literate, or has adequate access to broadband. So traditional methods of engagement need to be retained - contact via post for example, with numerous feedback methods and opportunities to access information in various on and offline formats is important. It is likely that extensions to the mailing areas considered appropriate, and extended timeframes for considering and responding to information should be provided.
The emphasis placed on engaging with Hard to Reach, or Seldom Heard groups during this period is probably one of the trickier elements to adapt to in the current circumstances. Guidance from MHCLG and, as NIPA requests, a renewed emphasis on the use of Planning Aid to act as an independent facilitator to build capacity of understanding and engagement in the process is important. However, it is down to the applicant to ensure that adequate planning and preparation has been put into the identification of groups of people who may not have access to support or understanding of the process to play an active role in it. Every project and geographic location is different, but general approaches such as multi-lingual consultation materials, engagement via existing channels of communication and organisations should be a focus at the outset of any consultation.
With a few tweaks and temporary legislation changes, there is more than enough opportunity within the overarching principles of consultation and engagement that the Planning Act and DCLG/MHCLG guidance has been based upon to develop robust and compliant consultation programme that respects the importance of physical social distancing, but retains the opportunity for local communities and consultees to consider and respond to consultation on these critically important development schemes.
The team at Thirty4/7 is well versed in developing consultation programmes that are inclusive and - at the heart of it - understand that engagement needs to respond to the audiences to which it is seeking to consult. The changes being brought into the process as we adapt to the current pandemic will be positive in long run; it will help us all, developers and communities alike, grow to understand the value and legitimacy of new and innovative forms of consultation.
Get in touch if you would like to discuss how your project can be tailored to adapt to the current situation.