The digital revolution is steadily permeating the complex world of Planning – but will it change the outcomes? hgh Consultant Frances Wheat discusses the recent round of UK digital planning pilots.
As new platforms transform paper and face-to-face communications into electronic form, we as individuals are increasingly able and willing to engage digitally. The challenge now is to convert the databases underpinning the Planning world into their component parts, making them more agile, more readable and cheaper.
Some of the more straightforward planning processes are already subject of advanced pilots under the tantalising acronyms of BOPS & RIPA (Back Office Planning Systems and Reducing Invalid Planning Applications). These allow the public to input their planning application data directly into the system without being aggregated into pdf documents, and without having to be re-keyed manually. Applying the right constraints, the system automatically responds with a tick or a cross: valid or invalid.
Now the digital revolution is pressing on to engagement with the Planning system. However, making sure that everyone is involved, heard and seen is another challenge entirely. It’s well known that those who engage with the planning system are more likely to be those who already live in an area, have time available or oppose a development. But where are the views of those who’d like to live in an area, who are bored by yet another council letter, who only communicate with immediacy on a mobile phone, or who support a development?
Digital Planning Pilots
A recent webinar showcased some pilot projects recently sponsored by DLUHC under the PropTech Engagement Fund and exploring the scope to engage the public more widely in the Planning process.
The Local Planning Authorities involved have come up with some novel ideas, including:
- Branded Local Plans
Cotswold Council have branded its Local Plan distinctively (see link) and, with savvy marketing, has increased subscribers by almost 30% and attracted visits equivalent to 7% of the District’s population. Digital responses increased by over 50% since the last consultation 7 years ago and Cotswold’s 6 week social media campaign attracted 27,000 views. The over 55’s were not put off by digital engagement!
- Wider Access
Chesterfield increased both options and transparency in their call for sites as part of their Local Plan Review. As a result 64% sites were identified by members of the public who also submitted their views as to what future uses might be appropriate. Pre-set constraints were then automatically applied to provide an accessibility score. In addition to increasing transparency, this brought an estimated saving of 2 hrs of officer time per site.
- Digital Codes
Watford drew plaudits for their email alerts enabling the public to be consulted on the sites they were interested in, whether or not they were formally consulted. The introduction of QR codes on site notices, press notices and in consultation letters gave people instant access to visuals, maps and key information about a development. Major proposed developments across the district were represented on tiles easily accessible at the front of the website and with their key information, including 3D modelling available at a glance.
- Reaching the Difficult-to-Engage
Southampton and Bolsover, both at Regulation 18 stage of their Local Plans, are exploring ways of engaging the ‘hard to engage’: children who won’t self serve or consult ‘boring’ council documents and ambassadors with contacts in community and youth organisations who can bring planning to life in a relevant way. They also question whether one can grow the quick fire responses via emojis into a community debate about the more challenging trade-offs required in Planning, for example between housing and infrastructure?
All the pilot projects recognised the scope for engaging a more diverse public through digital means. They also recognised the limitations of existing software systems and potential for both wider and better data integration between their systems and across their councils. Hopefully the Round 2 Pilots will develop these themes.
Barriers to Digital
A number of hurdles have been identified as:
- The up front cost of the pilots, which wouldn’t have happened without funding
- Difficulties of integration and functionality with existing proprietary software systems – and indeed councils’ own security systems and firewalls.
- Tension between quick, simple responses to engagement and the rigorous requirements of Local Plan inspection.
It would nevertheless be impossible to criticise wider engagement in Planning; our built environment is for everyone, not just those with the loudest voices. Since debates in the 1960’s and the Skeffington Report on ‘Public Participation in the Planning System’ efforts have been made to engage effectively.
Now digital capability, and public willingness to use it, could prompt a step change in participation, enabling novel ways of presenting options, envisaging developments and quick fire means for more people to respond, including by emoji. Even if a broad initial response reduces as the debate becomes more complex and time consuming, it provides a wider perspective and is an important background for further decisions.
Next Generation Planning?
The pilot projects have shown some exciting ways forward for our huge IT capability. I hope their ideas will be developed and multiplied out across the whole country, whether prompted by new government drivers or performance indicators, or by Tech companies recognising and responding to councils’ need for more accessible and responsive data systems and cost savings. The real opportunity is to create further ingenious ways for users to influence their future surroundings available at their digital fingertips.
Image: Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash