Two neighbourhoods of Teignbridge District Council were awarded Garden Community Status by government, in 2019. Residents were offered the opportunity to be part of the plans to build vibrant, green neighbourhoods of the future, however the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted face-to-face engagement of every kind. Determined to involve local people in the project, the council pioneered an innovative set of digital initiatives. The success of this digital engagement has given Teignbridge Council the confidence to explore other ways to increase resident participation.
Prior to the pandemic, two adjacent areas in Teignbridge District were awarded Garden Community status by central government. Newton Abbot, Kingsteignton and the surrounding neighbourhoods were first given the status in 2019, to help revitalise the respective neighbourhoods and to create the right environment to build new homes.
The Garden Community programme asked for areas to be developed as “vibrant, mixed-use, communities where people can live, work, and play for generations to come.” As the “conservation areas of the future,” Garden Communities needed to be “holistically planned, self-sustaining, and characterful.”
Central to making the most of the award – and to embedding support for the programme – was the need to develop a vision and a set of tangible outcomes. This had to build on the goals and aspirations of the communities chosen and required sustained engagement. The process was made more challenging by the arrival of the pandemic, in early 2020, which prevented face-to-face engagement.
To address this, Teignbridge District Council ran a series of engagement exercises, predominantly using online channels. These were held throughout the first part of the pandemic, to help the council to understand local opinion about what Garden Community status should mean for the area.
This engagement programme involved the creation of a new website for Newton Abbot and Kingsteignton Garden Community. This was built using ArcGis StoryMaps, and featured an interactive map displaying project progress, complete with YouTube videos and illustrations. It acted as a central digital platform, around which online engagement could take place.
The council ran a series of digital outreach initiatives. This included:
- Facebook and Instagram targeted advertising and surveys, creating 95,974 impressions, 20,128 video views and 156 survey completions and workshop sign ups
- Social media posts (via Facebook and Instagram), allowing the council to connect with 5,501 people, and generating 5,710 impressions and 102 clicks
- Additional awareness raising using Twitter, LinkedIn and NextDoor
- Email communications to 16,525 people
- SurveyMonkey questionnaires
- A qualitative series of Zoom webinars and workshops, to discuss each neighbourhood in depth, attended by nearly 100 residents, technical experts and political partners
These initiatives were circulated via conventional channels, but also in other ways – such as using QR codes on branded boards, placed throughout the Garden Community area.
In addition to this digital engagement, the council also contacted people by phone and, when COVID-19 restrictions allowed, met people to ensure that those who could not engage online still had the opportunity to share their opinions. These forms of in-person engagement were carried out by community leaders, who had existing channels with hard-to-reach groups
As the programme progresses, the council is continuing to evolve its online engagement. There are plans to use interactive online mapping tools, as well as online 3D modelling, and platforms in which the community can compare illustrative examples and share photos. These digital approaches are not a substitute for face-to-face engagement, but they allow new and creative approaches to the co-production process.
The COVID-19 pandemic has therefore changed the way Teignbridge District Council engages with its local community, technical experts and political partners. The requirement to move away from more traditional, face-to-face methods, along with a duty to give local communities a say over decisions that will affect their future, encouraged the council to explore and adopt innovative, online tools for engagement.
This shift is continuing to influence the way the council engages, across a range of different projects.
Teignbridge Council appreciated the potential that digital technology could provide in creating meaningful engagement with its local communities. The pandemic encouraged them consider and then put into practice new ways to reach people. The Garden Communities project in Teignbridge demonstrated that creative forms of digital participation can increase community inclusion.
Importantly, the council continued to offer traditional channels, for phone conversations and in-person meetings so as not to exclude those who are unable to communicate digitally.