How to produce a local plan for the digital era, by Euan Mills

Local plans are meant to be the backbone of our "plan-led" planning system. We aspire to create plans that are "succinct and up to date", to "provide a positive vision for the future of each area" and to act as "a platform for local people to shape their surroundings".

These are the aspirations of the National Planning Policy Framework. In reality, though, our local plans are mostly outdated, harbouring ambiguous policies and impenetrable to local communities, not to mention extremely costly.

The truth is technology, culture and finance are changing the places we live and work and the plans just can’t keep up. In the time it takes to get a plan from issues and options, through examination in public to adoption there has been so much change, the plan is inevitably out of date. We may try to patch up some of the biggest issues with supplementary planning documents or other guidance, but these lack the robustness and democratic legitimacy of a proper local plan.

Cognisant of this, the government has issued new guidance requiring authorities to update local plans every five years, but the only way to do this is to update our processes and fundamentally redesign plans from "the internet up". Our analogue and manual plan production methods are the reason that local communities are left to navigate 250-page PDF documents, filled with quasi-judicial jargon and data that are impossible to use or visualise.

A survey in 2018 by SOCTIM highlighted that only 37 per cent of local plan sites were able to convey to users where housing development would be designated. It is unsurprising so few people even know their local plan exists, much less see it as "a platform for local people to shape their surroundings". As well as being out of date when adopted, and cryptic to the communities that are meant to shape it, local plans are extremely costly to produce – an average £2.5m per local authority, according to research, £1m of which is spent on its evidence base. That adds up to some £850m spent on across England every five years.

Recently, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has taken some positive steps by developing new digital standards for some of the key datasets in local plans in the hope of addressing some of these issues. But these are just small tweaks to a system that needs radical transformation.

The MHCLG needs to look beyond the immediate needs of existing users and consider how local plans could feed into the many other communities on the fringes of planning today. We need to produce plans using the cultures and technologies from the internet era. We need to see the plans as digital products, with a "back end" database of policies and evidence, and a "front end" of carefully designed user interfaces, different for each user group.

A plan should no longer be a single document, with a front cover and pages and pages of digitised paper filled with language that doesn’t distinguish between planning lawyers, developers and local communities. Policies need to be treated as a standalone algorithms, geo-located and linked to the evidence base and community representations that shape them.

They should be updatable individually, as the evidence changes, without needing to review the entire plan each time. We need a digital approach to local plan-making, from both councils and the Planning Inspectorate. If we are to continue to spend £170m a year on making plans, we need to make sure they are relevant, usable and a genuine platform for people to shape their surroundings.

Euan Mills is head of digital planning at Connected Places Catapult


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