I recently had the pleasure of talking to Grace Wilson, a Planning officer at West Lancashire Borough Council, to talk about how Citizen Space helped them manage a consultation that matched the scale and ambition of their Local Plan.
The Council are relatively new customers to Delib, and started their consultation activity off with a bit of a bang: Grace and her team consulted on Preferred Options for their upcoming Local Plan, which proposed to plan for three decades instead of the usual 15 years.
The ambitious plan would see 15 000 new homes built across the region by 2050. Some of the developments would be built on green belt land, which attracted a lot of opposition from local residents. All in all, the consultation received over 1600 responses.
Previously the Planning department used several tools – Objective, Smart Survey and Survey Monkey – to manage their consultation activity. Citizen Space eliminated the need to use these platforms and has made life easier for the consultation managers.
‘We went for a different approach to what we normally do,’ Grace said of the plans. ‘Normally local plans run for about 15 years, but we proposed something on a bigger scale than that, and proposed a 30-year local plan which would run through to 2050 – which generated a great deal of interest in, and response to, the Plan. People are quite concerned about the scale of the plan that we’ve proposed and the amount of development that we’ve proposed within the local plan.’
I asked whether she thought the public’s concerns about the development was part of the reason why there were so many responses.
‘Yes – we proposed quite a lot of development across the area. The numbers have seemed quite high because it’s across such a long period, so everything’s multiplied by the years that you’re planning for. So I do think that has increased people’s interest in it.’
The team behind the consultation used Citizen Space’s response publishing feature to display comments from respondents who consented to having their responses shown publicly. I read through a random selection and many of them include long-form, free text comments. Looking at the long list of responses is a bit intimidating.
So how has Citizen Space helped her and her colleague, Helen, manage a consultation on this scale? Response tagging – the ability to categorise free text responses in the back end of the platform – has certainly helped.
‘All the [planning] officers have been able to get in to Citizen Space and access their topic area. Whoever’s dealing with the environment side of things has got all the environment comments, and so on…we separated everything off policy-wise, topic-wise and area-wise so it’s been quite easy. Having multiple admin users allowed has been super helpful, definitely when it came to moderating, because it wasn’t just left to the two of us…with that many responses it would’ve been quite a job!’
Did they get many offline responses?
‘We had about 260-300 responses come in through the post or by email. And to be able to pop stuff ourselves into Citizen Space – that was really useful. As the consultation closed, we [input responses] through the ‘add response manually’ function. Everything was in one place, which was great, rather than having a big separate pile of [paper responses] as well as the online responses.’
Having multiple admin users allowed has been super helpful, definitely when it came to moderating, because it wasn’t just left to the two of us…with that many responses it would’ve been quite a job!Grace Wilson
Due to the nature of the consultation, they did a great deal of offline consultation activity beyond asking for responses – for example, press releases, articles in local newspapers, and leaflet drops. They also held consultation events – short, appointment-based Q&A sessions with a planning officer, which about 6 local residents attended at a time. ‘There was plenty of opportunity to just have a good chat about the local plan – instead of the public just being talked at, they could ask us questions as well.’ The events were listed on the consultation overview page, and I asked if she thinks that having them up there helped get more people in. ‘Yeah, I think so. The way it’s laid out is really easy to understand, so having one central point of contact for the consultation – with everything up there, like the events, and all the supporting documents – will have definitely helped.’
So all in all, would she recommend Citizen Space?
Turns out she already has. ‘We’ve had some interest from other internal departments within the Council, so we’ve started to share the software and get them on board with the use of it. I even did a demo to a few of my colleagues in Housing. I went through what kind of things you can do with it and they all seemed really impressed with it compared to software they’ve used in the past. It’s so easy to understand and communicate to the people through it. Someone from another council emailed me asking for a reference recently, so I said yes, I think it’s great. It’s a good piece of kit.’