Planning practice in an ‘infodemic’

TCPA Trustee Peter Geraghty discusses social media’s impact on planning practice

Social media has become all-pervasive. Social media platforms are fulfilling a growing need for citizens to be heard. They enable even lone voices to express views and persuade wider opinion. Social media platforms are rapidly changing the manner in which individuals and communities interact with public institutions. Social media has incredible power to communicate with a wide range of people however; it also has a destructive capacity, which, if not checked, or appropriately managed, can have devastating effects. It can also lead to moderate views being drown out by a minority with strong opinions and a particular agenda.

Accompanying and often fuelled by the growth of social media is the continuing trend of diminishing public trust in established institutions. Misinformation and fake news is creating an atmosphere of mistrust and misunderstanding. Over the past twenty-five years, in particular, the continual proposals for reform of the planning system has significantly undermined an already fragile public confidence in planning.

Increasingly, planning has become the subject of hot button politics and embroiled in the spread of ‘culture wars’. Recent experience with the 15-minute city (or 20-minute neighbourhood) concept, which has been misunderstood and misrepresented as part of an international conspiracy, is a case in point. The stance of objectors to 20-minute neighbourhoods in Oxford rapidly transformed from seeking to persuade the local authority not to introduce them, to direct action based on a misunderstanding of the concept. This phenomenon, which the World Health Organization has described as an ‘infodemic’, is becoming increasingly common in planning leading to abuse of planning professionals.

Several surveys of the profession by the Royal Town Planning Institute found clear evidence that Local Planning Authorities experience considerable abuse or negative incidents. The more widespread use of social media and immediacy of communication channels such as email has exacerbated the pressure and intimidation experienced by professional planners. These surveys highlight the detrimental impact on the wellbeing of staff. A growing number of planners have been negatively targeted through social media. Many respondents regarded social media to have given the public the ability to express their opinions (including insults and abuse) without any consequences.

Planning officers often have to face committed media campaigns challenging local proposals using misinformation or misunderstood information. A campaign against a proposal can very easily take on a personal dimension targeting planning officers and local authority staff. Engagement and consultation are a fundamental part of planning activity and the growing infodemic is undermining this important part of planning practice. 

These effects are already been felt in planning practice and to meet these challenges there is a widespread need for agreed protocols covering the interaction between public institutions and the citizens they represent. Organisations need robust corporate social media strategies that include support for staff working on the front line. These protocols, in turn, should become a fundamental part of professional planning practice, particularly in the public sector. Such an approach should be front and centre in dealing with citizens.

The unchecked effects of social media platforms put at risk the very essence of public sector planning which is to help create sustainable places in the public interest. If we neglect to support public sector planners during this infodemic, then we will all be the worse off for it.

In addition to being a Trustee at the TCPA, Peter Geraghty is currently Senior Vice President of the Planning Officers’ SocietyHe has held senior leadership roles in several local authorities including at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, Brentwood Borough Council and at Broadland District Council. The views expressed are personal. 

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