Delivering a meaningful public consultation through online engagement

On 31st March 2021, Kingston Council approved the plans for Unilever’s new global headquarters to be developed in Kingston upon Thames town centre in the UK. This decision means that Unilever, the company behind many household brands such as Marmite, Ben & Jerry’s and Dove, would be consolidating its workforce from five sites across London and Surrey, bringing 2,000 jobs into Kingston.

In addition to the offices, the plans include the construction of a new residential building, car park and landscaped gardens. This development will regenerate an underused and largely vacant site into an attractive, accessible campus in the heart of the town.

These plans are very exciting for Kingston, even more so as they were designed with local people. Over the past year, there has been a significant amount of work done to engage and talk to local residents, ensuring that these plans will be genuinely welcomed by local people. The Grayling Engage team led the public consultation process (on behalf of the developer, Cube Real Estate) for these plans and has delivered despite the pandemic.

In pre-COVID-19 times, the consultation process for plans like these would involve face-to-face events (in a public library or church hall) where the plans would be open to the public who could ask questions to staff. For obvious reasons, this wasn’t something that was possible in 2020, but we still needed to make sure that the community was properly engaged with, even if we couldn’t present the plans in person.

Instead, the public engagement for this development took place entirely online through EngageOnline, Grayling Engage’s fully customisable and flexible platform which keeps the conversation going online.

The consultation process for these plans took place in two phases. In both consultations, exhibition boards and a feedback form were hosted on the website, as well as a live chat function so residents could speak directly to the project team. Following consultation, over 50% of respondents agreed in principle with the plans for the site.

Residents were kept informed of the consultations and design development through highly targeted social media advertising. To ensure all residents were reached, more traditional methods were used as well, with over 2,500 leaflets delivered neighbours and adverts placed in the local press.

In addition to the public consultations, throughout the design process digital meetings were held with key stakeholders in the town, including the University, Kingston Chamber of Commerce, Kingston First, the town’s Business Improvement District, and local politicians. When the application reached committee, it did so with letters of support from the University and both business groups.

Despite a global pandemic and the normal way of working being totally transformed, we still managed to fully engage with local people in Kingston who would be most impacted by these plans. Across the entire consultation period we:

  • Reached 45,153 people for each phase of consultation through press advertising.
  • Reached 31,101 people through social media.
  • Received 3,828 visitors to the website.
  • Received 293 responses to the two phases of consultation.

One of the largest sites to go through planning totally virtually, this represents a real shift in how we should look at consultation. Through our work during the pandemic and our Future of Engagement research, Grayling Engage has continued to develop EngageOnline over this period, with new features being added to ensure that we can keep the conversation going online.

Receiving planning approval for these plans is just the beginning for this project and the delivery of this online engagement is just the start for EngageOnline. If you would like to find out more about the platform, get in touch on engage@grayling.com