Savills plc

06/17/2021 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 06/17/2021 02:34

Digital local plans: a golden thread

The recent Queen's Speech set out the start of drafting a new Planning Bill, based on the Planning for the Future White Paper published last year. It has attracted a notably mixed reaction, particularly over housing numbers and the way development is planned for, despite the lack of detail provided in the announcement.

The White Paper's 'areas' approach, with land allocated for 'growth', 'renewal' or 'protection', presents a significant change from the way we currently seek to allocate land. It front-loads the detailed application and engagement stages of projects, including community engagement, with the emphasis instead on extensive consultation at the plan-making stage, considering policies, allocations and design codes.

While there is a relative amount of scepticism about the practical way this may take place, moving local plan preparation to a digital, machine-readable format provides the opportunity for simplification and easier access, democratising the process while also making it easier to track the progress of sites put forward for development.

We have seen the success of virtual planning committees since the start of the pandemic, as more people are able to join the meeting and follow the decision-making process. There appears to be a general appetite for the continued use of digital tools to enhance and extend engagement with the planning process which the Planning Bill should seek to build on.

Local plans are currently set out in hundreds of pdf pages, often with an accompanying Proposals Map which is not searchable and is hard to read - an online version of a paper copy on a website. Each local authority also presents the information in its own way, making it difficult to compare or build a strategic regional picture. Proposals in the White Paper would standardise much planning policy and provide all stakeholders with a simpler system to engage with, offering time and cost-saving opportunities.

Digital local plans do not just mean presenting policy information in a different way. If they are machine readable it will make it easier to trace new development back to planning policy and see whether it is compliant.

Machine readable data also provides the opportunity for easier cross-authority working and live data provides the opportunity to see how effective a development is in serving the needs of the community: do junctions function as predicted? How are footpaths used? And so on. It also means that information is freely and easily available to all stakeholders for review and engagement.

If the Government is to overhaul the planning system and particularly the way local plans are designed and presented, a robust, effective digital planning system is key. This will help allay fears regarding communities being disempowered by proposed 'zones' as there can be open and meaningful engagement throughout the process, not just at the application stage and it means developers have data at their fingertips from the start of the site promotion process.

If the measures proposed in the White Paper are introduced, it will mean it is as important as ever to present information in a user-friendly and accessible way and to stay abreast of local authority consultations. Planning remains the golden thread in meeting the needs of communities in a sustainable way - digitising the plan-making system provides the opportunity to enhance this further.

Further information

Contact Alison Broderick

Contact Savills Planning