In July 2020, Copper Consultancy along with partners at Barton Willmore and Womble Bond Dickinson, released a report detailing the outcomes of a two-year research project to examine the industry’s take on the Development Consent Order (DCO) process after a decade.

The report was a temperature check of the planning system and look at whether the principles of the DCO process could be applied to a wider range of projects – particularly in terms of front-loaded, accessible and standardised engagement.

We found that in this case, theory works in practice – most of the time.

DCOs have generally sped up the decision-making process, and there is common consensus over the success of several of its features:

  • Standardised pre-application engagement and consultation promotes understanding and collaboration among stakeholders and buy-in from communities.
  • Certainty: both on national need through national policy statements (NPSs) and for participants, with clear process and timescales.
  • A streamlined process with the introduction of compulsory acquisition powers.

We also identified some areas for improvement, which included addressing issues around consent flexibility, providing greater resources to local authorities and statutory consultees, and critically, accelerating the use of technology.

As well as this, we also reviewed how DCO principles could be applied more widely in the planning system – particularly in context of large-scale, mixed-use developments – and how we might better integrate between spatial and infrastructure planning.

In the short time since the report was released, the way we live and work has experienced the most rapid peacetime overhaul in living memory, in the form of the COVID-19. While many have stories of tragic losses, both of lives and livelihoods, it is often said that adversity is the mother of invention – and this crisis is no exception.

Just weeks into the pandemic, we published our inaugural white paper on stakeholder engagement and consultation in a digital world, which informed regulatory changes to the DCO process. This included digital provision of a range of notices as well the Statement of Community Consultation (as opposed to the previous requirements which required physical provision), and advice on holding digital events, telephone surgeries and webinars. We also led England’s first fully digital statutory consultation for London Resort.

Industry’s response to the COVID crisis has been instrumental in realising the acceleration of digital technology – one of the report’s recommendations. In fact, without it, infrastructure development would have ground to a halt. But I think there are longer-term benefits than simply getting us through COVID. Data sets are a natural byproduct of digital technology: suddenly we can track and analyse behavioural patterns with much more accuracy than with a clicker at a consultation event, and in-webinar interactive tools collecting aggregated data, for example, can provide further understanding of public perceptions, aspirations, and knowledge gaps with respect to our projects.

This insight can inform much more tailored, targeted engagement strategies, opening new doors to engaging more regularly and at shorter intervals than before. Webinars, for example, provide more opportunities to build relationships with communities, create a better understanding of project benefits, and – if promoted in the right way – have the potential to reach a far wider audience base and mobilise latent support among lesser heard communities.

All of this leads to better-oiled DCOs that can set an example for other regimes within the planning system, where principles around proactive, standardised engagement are less well-defined. As the societal landscape shifts and net zero targets loom, the infrastructure that supports it becomes ever more important. While nothing replaces face-to-face contact, the lessons we have learnt during lockdown will form a vital role in DCOs of the future, and perhaps they are the key to unlocking homes, jobs, and amenities too.

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For the full report, follow this link.