Local Plan creation – a future focused on accessibility, transparency and trust

Sharing the objectives of its Planning Reform Programme at a recent event, the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities set the scene for what is meant by ‘The Future of Planning’ in England. With changes to Local Plans also high on the agenda, the Objective Keyplan team review what councils can expect next.

Last winter, I grabbed a coffee and settled down to join the final day of the Planning Portal Spring Conference.

In the opening keynote, May-N Leow and Paul Downey from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), shared the three key objectives of the wider Planning Reform Programme:

  1. Digital Citizen Engagement – enabling everyone to easily engage with the planning system;
  2. Data and Standards – delivering the data infrastructure required for a data-driven system; and
  3. Modern planning software – more efficient software for the planning system, underpinned by data not documents.

The final point was supplemented by talk of an additional workstream, digitalising the plan-making process with map-based local plans based on machine learning. This led to a panel discussion on ‘The Future of Planning’, focusing specifically on local plan development, with several key takeaways.

#1 Accessible by default

Perhaps the topic of the hour, it was unanimous that local plans need to be more accessible.

As part of the programme to drive citizen engagement, May-N Leow discussed how DLUHC has been working with 46 Local Authorities to scale-up the adoption of digital engagement tools that allow citizens to understand and interact with planning services, given “on average, only 1% of communities engage in planning”. The desire to be ‘accessible’ is not new. In a previous blog post with The Consultation Institute, we discussed how, in response to the pandemic, the rapid shift to digital consultation brought change, challenge and opportunity to the consultation and engagement community.

On average, only 1% of communities engage in planning

May-N Leow, Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities

Other key learnings and opinions around accessibility included:

  • Using ‘digital’ for engagement is important – introducing video, images, 3D imaging and mapping into plans creates an immersive experience for citizens
  • Map-based local plans will become the norm, offering an interactive mapping experience that surfaces live corporate GIS data and allows citizens to browse, search and filter to find information of interest for a particular location
  • Provide citizens with “something that's a bit more intuitive to use, a bit easier to understand and puts information in the hands of the non-expert” (Stephen Croney, Head of Sector – Land & Property, Esri UK)
  • Improve navigation – currently deemed as a barrier – so citizens can access and comment quickly on the information that is relevant to them (Andrea McMillan, Principal Planner (Policy and Delivery), East Suffolk Council)
  • “Some of the richest debates are on social” so consideration needs to be given as to how can we capture this often-unstructured feedback in a meaningful way (panel chair, Catriona Riddell)

With digital-first becoming the default, it’s important to: 1) Consider how ‘traditional’ plans can be adapted for online to avoid these issues; and 2) Consider how councils can ensure inclusiveness across citizen and stakeholder demographics, not just online.

We know how councils can take steps to make plans more accessible using traditional and new methods and practices (take a look at our previous Inclusivity in the era of online consultation and engagement webinar).

Acceleration towards fuller online engagement has already happened and the momentum will keep us going in that direction.

#2 It’s not just local plans!

Catriona Riddell raised how the 80% of authorities that still operate as part of a two-tier structure are managing a variety of plans on a place-based basis, rather than the individual planning authority and potentially some of the artificial boundaries and asked if we need to go back to regional data around places, not just around local planning.

Andrea McMillan at East Suffolk highlighted a similar issue discussed in the pathfinder programme, commenting in response: “It’s not just local plans, we need to be treating all the plans in the same way, in the way that the data is available, and the public can access that data… When we talk about Local Plans, we sometimes forget about Minerals and Waste plans and Neighbourhood plans. There’s then the monitoring and data side, how do we bring that together so that they are easily accessible and place-based rather than just planning?”.

Even a local authority can struggle trying to access information for monitoring purposes when it is held in different places. An area for consideration is digitising all the different elements of a development plan in a standardised way.

#3 Transparency in the planning process

Stephen Croney suggested that we need to open the complexity of planning from the few to the many.

In support of improving transparency in planning, Catriona Riddle commented: “There is need for more honesty in local planning between communities – we are planning for people in places, we need to be much more honest about what decisions can be influenced and informed by a local authorities and what decisions have to be made in the interest of the greater good. Getting the balance right of how we manage the digital process is really important”.

Andrea McMillan joined the conversation: “Public engagement and understanding of the local plan is key. If communities feel that they are involved in the process, they may not always like the outcome, but they’ve generally had the opportunity to make their voices heard – that in itself will assist with not just the process but the outcome as well”.

Digitising a local plan puts local authorities in a much stronger position to accelerate the collection and review of responses, and provide faster, evidence-based decision making back into the community.

#4 Build trust with continuous engagement

Catriona asked the panel if the digital approach to engagement should mean that we have more of an ongoing relationship with local communities when developing local plans and whether the formal stages for the Local Plan process become the focus of community involvement, rather than the wider Local Plan engagement process.

Digital has to be one tool in the armoury to help us engage one way to get the information, the data, the evidence-based decision we need it. But it's not the only thing, it’s the constant engagement that you need to secure

Graham Stallwood

The Planning Inspectorate

Graham Stallwood, Director of Operations at The Planning Inspectorate commented: “Constant engagement of communities throughout the life of the plan has to be the right thing in terms of getting the outcomes we all want. The danger is as soon as you start putting it into a process, like you have with Reg 18 and Reg 19 separate stages, you end up with an outcome you don't want.”

He continued: “I would hope that whatever the local plan process looks like in the future, we find the way of rationalizing those kinds of stages. We still achieve what we need to achieve process wise, but ultimately, we get that engagement. That's what will make the plan more successful, that model will make our residents and communities happy”.

As we’ve already mentioned, inclusive consultation does not just mean online consultation. We need to widen participation to all to ensure that we provide citizens with a way of engaging that is convenient to them.

Graham summarised: “Digital has to be one tool in the armoury to help us engage one way to get the information, the data, the evidence-based decision we need it. But it's not the only thing, it’s the constant engagement that you need to secure”.

It comes back to local plans, not just being the local planning authorities, but the local communities, whether you're a developer, businesses or resident, it’s about owning the local plan as part of your place.

Catriona Riddell

Catriona Riddell & Associates Ltd

From the outset of the plan creation process, you need to create consultation-ready, interactive and engaging documents that put the community at the heart of your policies and plans.

There is no doubt huge potential when it comes to reforming the planning process, but there are also several challenges that need to be considered early when it comes to data, resourcing and skills.

Although changes to planning reform may still feel a long way off, there are steps local authorities can take to prepare for increased digital citizen engagement, data and standards, and map-based planning.

As Catriona Riddell summarised: “It comes back to local plans, not just being the local planning authorities, but the local communities, whether you're a developer, businesses or resident, it’s about owning the local plan as part of your place.”

To learn more about how Objective Keyplan can support the future delivery of your policies and plans, from content and creation through to community engagement, please get in touch.