CJ Associates is supporting community and technical stakeholder engagement activities for Highways England’s Lower Thames Crossing project. When the Government advised us to work from home, we were just over a week away from the close of our Supplementary Consultation in preparation for DCO submission. We had to cancel our remaining Public Information Events and Mobile Information Centres. Our community engagement team worked with the rest of the external affairs team, and technology team to look at how we could continue with the consultation without holding face-to-face events. Consultation was extended by a week to give communities and stakeholders time to adjust to social distancing and the new working arrangements.
Microsoft Teams has enabled us to create a call centre facility for members of the public to contact us with their questions. Over 6,000 responses were received and we are now focusing on analysing the responses and planning the next steps in our engagement plans. As with every other project, on-going engagement and meetings with communities and stakeholders are essential, and in light of Covid-19, we are turning more to online platforms to maintain positive relationships and make progress. I work closely with our technical specialists, many of whom are based remotely across the UK and Europe, so we were already use Microsoft Teams to hold meetings and work collaboratively on documents.
I also lead on engagement with the police, fire and ambulance services, who currently have other priorities to consider, so I initially had to use webinars and develop presentations to send for them to comment on at their own pace. As we have now settled into this new way of working, it has become clear that these arrangements will be in place for some time. I have held a successful Teams meeting with 30 internal and external stakeholders to discuss our project plans and received valuable feedback from them. We covered a lot of topic areas and the success of the meeting was also down to the way it was facilitated via Teams. Attendees raised questions using the ‘Chat’ facility which allowed everyone to provide input without speaking over each other, and as there was a record of the questions it made it easier to take notes of the meeting.
When we return to the office, and who knows when that will be, I expect meetings and community engagement will not be the same as before. I still believe there is value in face-to-face meetings, but we will be using digital platforms more often, making fewer journeys, resulting in less time spent travelling and more efficiencies in our ways of working.