Hundreds of communities will be drawing up neighbourhood plans over the next year. This means local people and sometimes local bureaucrats working together on a document, usually a big multi-part document with tens of thousands of words. Handling a community drafting exercise over many months, though many arguments could be complex and burdensome. But with six simple steps people can use the internet to help make things much easier.
Talk About Local has worked with thousands of people around the country as they use the web to improve their communities. The TAL team has a lot of experience in local planning – often in fighting planning campaigns using our own local web sites and observing other planning battles on local sites around the country. We have used this experience to sketch out a simple, low cost way to help people use the internet to support their neighbourhood plans online. And to help manage an online discussion on the important bits of the plan without hostilities breaking out as passions run high.
As part of our public service mission Talk About Local is publishing our approach here for anyone to comment on or be inspired by. Naturally the work is in constant development and it’s up to you how you might use it (we accept no responsibility for how you might use the outline below – see disclaimer at end). We’ve run dozens and dozens of community sessions where we help people become confident in using the web to get things done. You can take us on to help you in your community. If you are a training or community support organisation we can also train your trainers. Drop us a mail at email@example.com But we’d be just as pleased if you got on with it yourself – it’s not difficult.
We can now see the early trailblazer neighbourhood plans emerging online in a variety of different formats. This blog post by Much Wenlock points to them
These websites almost all contain weighty PDFs where the reader has little choice but to download the entire pdf and probably print it off. There is no real facility for discussion nor commenting on most of these sites.
The ‘TAL Plan’
The ‘TAL Plan’ tries to hit a sweet spot of a cheap, quick, practical, reliable approach that allows easy publication of big documents, enables discussion, but allows you to control any toxic elements. The solution is then owned and run by the local community using simple free services.
At the heart of the TAL Plan is a simple website created by local people using a blog service on blogger.com and Google Drive services that come with a basic Gmail account. All of this is free at the time of writing.
Of course you need some volunteer people who want to give this a go – someone who is comfortable with computers and being online. There may be someone in your network who is used to online working through their job or maybe runs a blog or Facebook page or an e-bay business. If you have a formal structure of committees etc to draw up your plan don’t just delegate this task randomly. Ask your potential volunteers to read through this blog post before going ahead.
There are six basic steps – create a Gmail account, use that to create a blog, upload documents to Google Drive that comes from with the Gmail account and publish them online, copy the bits of text that people will want to discuss over to the blog, prepare for comments and tell people that the blog is there. There are many other things you can do too that we touch on at the end.
The first step is to create a free Gmail account say firstname.lastname@example.org This gives you access to Google Drive for free where we shall store, work on and publish the bulky plan text. And it allows you to have one email account from which you can manage communications about the plan. You can give several people you trust in your team the log in details to spread the work.
Create a Blogger blog using your new Gmail account to sign in – blogger is run by Google so it’s seamless. Call it littlemidfordplan.blogger.com say. We shall use the blog to publish the paragraphs from the plan on which plenty of people will want to comment as well as pictures, general information about the process, meetings etc. Customise the blog a little by using a photo of a local landmark.
You now have your basic infrastructure
Step 3 – Publishing some plan text
We assume you already have some basic draft plan text or maybe a previous area plan that is a reference document in a word document or pdf. From your new Gmail account go to Google Drive (Google Drive used to be called Google Docs) and upload your text to Google Drive. Either upload a word document or copy and paste into a new google drive document. If you already have some plan text in a word document try to convert it into the Google Drive format when Google asks you during the upload, this makes it easier to edit online.
Now your text is visible on the internet to anyone you give the link to. But you can still edit and change it in Google Drive. And so can anyone else you give permission to in the ‘Sharing’ box. But people who just follow a web link there can’t change it.
And of course, people can’t comment on your text.
Step 4 – creating a discussion space on the blog
Plans will be big bulky documents. In my 15 year experience of civil service document drafting I always found that it was a few choice paragraphs in the text that people wanted to discuss. In my view, in a neighbourhood plan it will be the bit that says ‘We welcome proposals for 500 houses in Upper Field’ that most people want to talk about, not the section that gives a history of local plans. Blogs are designed to help you manage a discussion in a way Google drive isn’t.
Use your skill and judgement to find some paragraphs from the draft plan that people will want to discuss. And then copy that text from the draft in Google Drive into the Blogger blog you have created so that you can handle comments easily and have a small discrete piece of text to draw peoples’ attention to, not a vast screed.
To do this, select some text from the Google Drive document using your moue, do CTRL-C to copy it and go to the Blogger blog you set up above. Create a new post, give it an appropriate title, paste in the text you copied and write something to precede it inviting people to comment. Ask people who disagree to propose a constructive alternative. Put a link in back to the full text you published in Google Drive so that if people want to see the juicy bit in context they can do so in one click. Press publish and you now have a live blog post on this comment-worthy piece.
Step 5 – prepare for comments
In Talk About Local’s experience planning arouses passions and many local sites need to control heated comments online, just as a Chair would do at a meeting if people got too boisterous. The blog gives you powerful tools to do that. We recommend a simple piece of text as a comment policy published as a page on the blog – something about the site encouraging free discussion but within civil limits no bad language or personal attacks, real names encouraged etc and then moderate against this. i.e. kick off people who don’t abide by it. But and it’s a big but if you moderate you are then responsible for defamatory remarks you let through. And in the Leveson context Britain’s approach to defamation is shifting as I type. It’s a judgement call for you – possible defamation risk or a poisoned well of unpleasant comments – seek constructive legal advice if in doubt.
The blog can of course also be used for all sorts of other things about the neighbourhood plan process or indeed any community notices etc
Step 6 – tell people the blog exists
If you are involved in drafting your local plan I assume that you have good local communications networks. It’s important to use these to let people know that the blog and the draft plan documents are available online for people to see and comment on. Use a local email list to tell people that the blog post is there for people to comment on. More people will come to the blog if it isn’t just about the plan so a sprinkling of local issues and events will help leaven the mix.
In six steps you have a simple way of publishing the large documents your neighbourhood plan process will generate and a manageable way of helping people comment on it online. But there’s a a lot more you can do.
Pictures are worth a thousand words
Our experience of planning is that the big documents are a huge turn off for people who don’t enjoy reading great screeds or who don’t work with words all the time. For an inclusive plan we recommend lots of pictures. The blog is a great way of publishing photos of the areas affected by the plan. If you can use photoshop (or even Power Point) then you can put lines on the pics to show the areas proposed for development etc.
Large numbers of people use Facebook and Twitter. Judicious use of Facebook in particular can help you reach much bigger (and often younger) audiences than a blog alone, but you don’t have the control that you have on a blog. We know of quite a few local sites where there is a big discussion in Facebook of stuff published on the blog and almost no discussion on the blog. You can easily link the blog to automatically update Facebook and Twitter when new posts go out. Or you can update them yourself for a more convincing human touch that more people are likely to read.
Create a Twitter account named similarly to the above using the new Gmail email address. Use your existing Facebook identity to create a Facebook Page for LittleMidfordplanning. And then invite your local friends.
Planning is about maps. In the last year or two it’s become easy to customise a map in Google Maps – for instance drawing lines on Upper Field to show where development would be allowed to go. You can sign into maps using your new Gmail account, customise and then copy the link and embed the map into your Blogger blog. This is simple and powerful.
Managing the drafting
There will be a core drafting team producing the bulk of the plan document. If they have Google accounts then you can simply share the document with them and give them editing permission and vice versa. When a civil servant I used to use ‘Track Changes’ in Word. But since using Google Drive/Docs to work collaboratively I wouldn’t go back. It’s much easier to see peoples changes in real time and to leave side comments.
There are lots of ways of critiquing the above, but we judge that the path we set out is far simpler than other manual or internet based ways of doing things with free tools. So bear that in mind when commenting.
This blog post comes over as very Google-heavy – that’s simply because that’s where the tools integrate best in our view. TAL rarely teaches people Blogger, much preferring wordpress.com. You can do much of the above with WordPress.com and DropBox. DropBox has some advantages in version control of word documents. But you need multiple user accounts so it’s easier to work through. It might be possible to do much of the same with Microsoft cloud services and Bing but we haven’t tried.
Broadband – yes you will need a basic broadband connection to do this which is a problem in some parts of the country. If you don’t then please accept my commiserations. Indeed the first neighbourhood plan in Eden Valley majored on the need for broadband.
As a board member of Online Centres Foundation I am all too well aware that there are still too many people not online. Look up your nearest UK online centre to see if they can help.
I suspect that a lot of councils with ante-diluvian IT policies will block google drive, making it hard for council partners unless they have their own laptop or ipad on which they can join in. There are no practical IT nor security issues that can justify blocking this service in a council firewall – it’s simply an HR issue that the council doesn’t trust its staff.
Any decision to follow the above steps to create a neighbourhood plan web resource is taken entirely at your own risk. Talk About Local does not accept any liability for losses or problems that may arise from people following the steps above. The steps above are subject to constant change as the nature of the web services they are based upon change and evolve. It is important that people seek their own legal and technical advice before embarking on a web publishing project.
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