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Cotswold District Council migrated to a new consultation platform using Commonplace, to make it easier for communities and businesses to engage digitally with Regulation 18 local plan making.
The pilot explored new ways of engaging with local residents to ensure a range of voices from local communities were heard right from the beginning of the local plan process. Adopted methods included providing the public access to ‘live’ data during consultation, ensuring documents were accessible in a range of different mediums, visually engaging and ‘easier’ to apply at the local neighbourhood level.
Cotswolds aims were to:
- make consultation documents and supporting information visually engaging, accessible, simple to understand and easier for people to use
- increase the range of digital channels used to maximise responses and get a greater insight into the needs and expectations of residents, businesses and communities
- reduce internal officer administration time
‘This new platform is great for engagement – it’s easy to use and doesn’t require specialist training.’ – Johanna Sterrick, Digital Engagement Lead, Cotswold District Council
Social media marketing to drive engagement
Cotswold District Council benefitted from an in-house communications team who ran a 6-week social media campaign reaching 196,000 accounts and generating 27,300 views.
Cotswold created a suite of social media graphics and video content including an animated film to capture the imagination by visually representing how Cotswold District could develop if proposals identified in the consultation were implemented. The film was used to drive traffic to the consultation platform.
Developing branding identity and a communications strategy
The council used distinctive new branding for the local plan across social media channels, posters and the new consultation website.
Keeping the community up to date
Commonplace software allowed Cotswold to post a news story easily on the consultation site and send subscribers a notification email about it. This led to a spike in traffic and 11% of people notified went on to contribute to the consultation.
Taking an iterative approach to consultation
The flexible nature of the software helped Cotswold to address feedback – for example a few town and parish councils felt the consultation was focused on the individual and it was challenging for them to comment using the platform. Cotswold was able to respond to this by creating a dedicated area on the platform to guide organisations on how to use the system and how to respond. This led to an increase in parish and town councils submitting comments via the Commonplace platform.
Using data to understand communities
Analysing live response demographic data during the consultation helped the council to target communications and the social media campaign to certain age groups.
Surprises and challenges
Engaging different demographics
Despite the council using social media, securing engagement from under-35s was difficult – they made up fewer than 4% of respondents. Yet a digital platform did not put off ‘older’ age groups, with the 55s and over making up more than half of respondents.
There was a notable reduction in the number of emails and letters sent directly to the council, which helped to reduce administration. Planning agents, the development industry and statutory stakeholders continue to prefer submitting letters and information via email.
Shifting policy to embrace digital
‘There’s a tension between what we’re required to do in the regulations versus new digital methods of digital engagement,’ says Johanna Sterrick (Digital Engagement Lead). ‘For example, a blocker identified by younger people is that there is a growing feeling that there should be a right to remain anonymous online’.
Making planning language simple
‘The amount of overly complex and technical information did put some people off from engaging. We had prepared a series of one-page summaries to mitigate this expected issue. With hindsight, we should have led with these as the first entry point, rather than the main regulatory consultation document and evidence papers.’ James Brain (Forward Planning Manager).
Informal versus formal consultation stages
‘Whilst this system successfully delivered an early stage Local Plan (Reg 18) consultation, we recognise there are improvements to be made to make it a full proof system for the more formal stages such as Regulation 19 and main modifications consultations.’ Johanna Sterrick (Digital Engagement Lead).
Cotswold District Council, a predominantly rural authority, reached 7% of its population and increased engagement by 530% with its local plan consultation by trialling a digital platform with inbuilt social media and email sharing tools.
Increasing consultation responses
The social media campaign led to more than 6,500 visits to the consultation site – engaging around 7% of the district’s population, a 119% increase in participation compared to a comparable consultation held in 2015. The number of consultation respondents using an online platform rose by 530%, from 97 in 2015 to 611 in 2022.
Increasing sign-ups for new users
The new digital platform also raised Local Plan database subscriptions by 29% (an additional 646 individuals during the consultation).
New data insights
‘Having this software also lets us compare demographic data across different areas to help us ensure we’re reaching a representative proportion of the population,’ says James Brain ( Forward Planning Manager).
Saving officer time
The larger than expected take up of using the platform resulted in an approx. 40% reduction in officer time needed to manually input letters and email.
In addition, the new systems built in AI filters comments for abusive, racist and inappropriate language, a process that was previously completed manually prior to publishing comments. This has removed a time consuming task from the consultation process.
One piece of advice
Understand data and system capabilities from the start
‘Think upfront about the data you want to collect at the end of your project so you collect the right data as you go along,’ says Johanna Sterrick, Digital Engagement Lead ‘We also wish we’d known before we started what the system could do before we wrote documents. Change from a “document first” to “system first” way of thinking.’
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