Two of the aims included within the White Paper issued for consultation this week are:
- To ensure earlier and more meaningful voice in the future of their area as plans are made, harnessing digital technology to make it much easier to access and understand information about specific planning proposals. More engagement should take place at the Local Plan phase; and
- Improve the user experience of the planning system, to make planning information easier to find and understand and make it appear in the places that discussions are happening, for example in digital neighbourhood groups and social networks.
Some of the key proposals are as follows:
- Increase support for local planning authorities (“LPA”) to use digital tools to support civic engagement for Local Plans and decision making;
- Insist plans are building on standardised, digitally consumable rules and data enabling accessible interactive maps that show what can be built where;
- Standardise and making digitally available other critical databases that the planning system relies on;
- Working with tech companies and LPAs to modernise software use for making and case managing a planning application, improving the user experience and reducing errors and costs experienced by LPAs.
The proposals are welcomed and over recent months we have all, LPA’s included, embraced the use of technology in the planning system more than ever. However, while the White Paper states that the proposals will greatly improve user experience it is unclear as to where responsibility will fall in relation to some of the proposals being put into practice.
Reliance is placed on PropTech companies and software developers bringing forward software and applications to assist LPA’s. One such platform referenced in the White Paper is Commonplace (https://www.commonplace.is/), which has the ability to use social networks to invite comments from users on local projects with feedback being presented in real time reports. This and other civic engagement processes should help LPA’s consult earlier, more immediately and reach a wider audience by opening up new ways for people to provide their views.
What is not clear from the proposals is whether the governments support for LPA’s to use digital tools will extend to financial incentives. With LPA’s often struggling with both resources and finances, it is uncertain as to whether they will be able to invest significantly enough in platforms such as those mentioned above to make significant and noticeable improvements in terms of community engagement from the processes already in place.