Camden boosts digital engagement and will share the playbook

The London Borough of Camden received funding through the Local Digital Fund to make a digital “playbook” on consultation and engagement and to develop a digital site notice.

Camden boosts digital engagement and will share the playbook media 1


Camden is a borough of immense contrast and diversity. The borough is home to over a quarter of million people, a third of a million jobs, and a diverse spectrum of people and places compacted into 22sq km of central London. Business centres such as Holborn, Euston and Tottenham Court Road contrast with exclusive residential districts in Hampstead and Highgate, thriving Belsize Park, the open spaces of Hampstead Heath, Parliament Hill and Kenwood, the youthful quirky energy of Camden Town, subdivided houses in Kentish Town and West Hampstead. Camden is also home to several sites of international interest, such as the British Library, the British Museum and the world-famous Camden Market, which receives 28 million visitors per year. But it’s not just the heritage, architecture and places with the borough that make it special it’s the people. Communities in Camden have a proud rebellious spirit, a strong sense of activism and a powerful shared understanding that they are stronger when they work together.

Camden sets out their vision for the future, a common theme across local authorities: $ “We want to make Camden a better borough – a place where everyone has a chance to succeed and where nobody gets left behind. Together, we will create a place that works for everyone, and where everybody has a voice.”$ 

I had the privilege of sitting down (via video conference of course) with Jonathon ("Jono") McClue, Principal Planning Officer and Kirsty Paul, Development Plans Manager, and Richard Limbrick, Planning Solutions Manager at London Borough of Camden to talk about their very new and exciting project in the way of planning and place-making.

Camden leads the U.K. in exploration of digital services around planning

The project, funded through the Local Digital Fund, aims to $ develop a “playbook” on consultation and engagement and to deliver a digital site notice$  - the first endeavor of this kind in the U.K.

In partnership with Middlesbrough Council, Camden is leading the effort to define practical approaches for $ digital place-based engagement (or PBE) to ensure that local communities and other stakeholders can have a meaningful say on planning projects, including major planning applications, development plans and town centre renewal projects. $ 

With their core focus being resilience in the wake of COVID-19 and beyond, they are relying heavily on digital, content rich tools that will enable more of the community to actively engage in a more meaningful way. Their work thus far highlights flaws with the traditional signage and efforts to engage the public in planning and place-making. It also introduces some interesting questions around inclusivity and engagement as a whole, which can be applied far beyond town planning.

Let’s quickly define the problem

Planning notices historically have been a challenge in terms of accessibility. Traditionally, a site notice is posted on a street pole of sorts and directs residents where to go for more information. This has obvious drawbacks. First and foremost, it relies on residents stumbling across the notice. Many questions arise: How do you select the highest traffic areas? How do you draw attention to the notice? How do you confirm the sign remains posted without physically checking? How do you get any data on who has engaged with your paper signage? I could go on….

Prior to COVID-19, Camden had taken an admirable step to provide QR codes on these paper notices to avoid some of the manual work by the end user. Scanning of the code will direct them to the website and applicable information on the notice. But even that isn't enough. Project lead, Limbrick shares:

"We can do better than QR codes which point users to a list of PDFs on a website."

And of course, timing is an issue. A planning notice posted by a bus stop and visible during the morning commute may not be the best time to engage residents - even if it was complete with a handy QR code. And this was pre-COVID. In lockdown, Camden was faced with the challenge of continuing town planning, but with limited tools to engage with residents who could not leave their house. How was Camden to get this important information in front of the public when the traditional signage couldn’t be discovered?

Beyond the issue of site notice visibility, there are larger issues around accessibility, digital engagement and inclusivity when it comes to town planning. There has been inadequate review of the existing tools to help engage in a more meaningful and digital way. The data collected, which can provide insights into needs and desires of the community has not been fully utilized in order to drive larger strategic goals. Camden has set out to change this.

Camden aims to “invent” a solution and document best practices

Faced with this challenge and on behalf of local authorities across the U.K...and really, the world, Camden plans to address these important issues by engaging with a partner to develop a digital, accessible form of a site notice. Their goal? Allow more residents to better engage in planning matters both in pandemic times and not. And the team isn’t stopping there. Kirsty Paul says:

"One of the main issues we see in terms of engagement is that planning is traditionally seen as something that is very complicated and potentially very time consuming to engage with – this can deter some groups of people from commenting and could result in community feedback that isn’t truly representative of the entire community.”

A key aspiration in Camden is create a place that works for everyone, and where everybody has a voice. This is why the main focus of the project being led by planning is making stakeholder engagement more inclusive and engaging, with a real emphasis being placed on breaking down the technical aspects of planning into more digestible and understandable material. This includes navigation to a rich platform that will allow residents to engage with more of the consultation process in a much more user-friendly and digital way. Limbrick says:

“We aim to make [planning site notices] a gateway into a richer more expansive network of information that links together different consultations happening in that area. And they shouldn’t just be found on lampposts. The next steps will be to make them available digitally and linked into GIS and GPS data.”

What we can expect from Camden’s upcoming playbook

For local governments, and much of the private sector for that matter, the devil is in the details. Documenting processes and tools seems to come last, yet can have an enormous impact on the organization if done well. Camden, like many others found themselves faced with a pandemic and no real documentation for what would guide their next move. Says Limbrick:

“The work we’d already done before the pandemic made us a bit more resilient than some local authorities — like our e-alerts . However, we’ve not really taken the time to write it down to allow us and others to review and learn from our experiences.”

Now, Camden will develop the first ever “playbook” for digital place-based engagement. $ The playbook will allow users to navigate the array of strategies, platforms, and tools for digital place-based engagement (DPE). It aims to provide practical support to develop comprehensive and effective approaches to DPE to be used independently or alongside traditional face-to-face consultation methods.$ 

The playbook can be seen as a guide, which summarizes the issues and strategies or “best practices” for digital place-based engagement. A lot of the work Camden has done thus far has been to identify available tools to help achieve their goal of engagement, which involved triage of their current tools and research of the available tools in the market. The playbook is likely to include checklists, questions to ask, and guiding principles for engagement in planning and place-making. In a recent blog post, Limbrick shares:

$ “This is the value of a playbook. As we, and others, learn how we can maintain public engagement in place-based services like planning, highways, parks, and so on, we aim to share that learning and provide others with the tools and knowledge they need.”$ 

For now, McClue and team press forward and we will stay tuned as this project unfolds. McClue comments:

“With the focus, especially during COVID-19 on resilience, the work we are doing in planning will be critical in maintaining service delivery and truly engaging with the community we serve. We are excited to discover ways we can do this more effectively and seamlessly and in a way that is accessible and engaging to a wider audience in Camden.”

Where’s the playbook on local government innovation?

We at Govlaunch have set out to create a “playbook” for local government innovation. We believe those in local government should have access to more digital and inclusive tools to learn from one another, leverage each other’s successes and failures to help drive innovation across governments of any size or budget. Ultimately, this sharing of information and the work to document the projects underway is going to be critical for local governments to meet the needs of their citizens and provide the services they need...and deserve. Come search over 2800 innovation projects shared by local government innovators and over 200 keywords to discover how others are improving their communities...and how you can too.

Thank you to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in the U.K. for providing funding for Camden’s important work, in an effort to aide local authorities across the U.K. and beyond.

Stay updated on this project

Additional Story Information




London Borough of Camden, GB

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Middlesbrough Council, GB

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