For various reasons we’ve been doing some more thinking about digital local plans. I last wrote about them 18 months ago and I’m not entirely sure what’s happened since. In some ways there have been lots of exciting alphas and betas, and probably several months’-worth of show-and-tells. But in other ways, to be totally honest, I don’t know that I’m much further forwards in my own understanding of what they really are.
However, by happy chance, last week I went on a two day training course that I’d put my name in the hat for many months ago [side bar: it was good and you should go even if you think you know all this stuff inside out]. The course was called digital and agile for local government, which I worried would be a slightly paternalistic push for stuffy old councils to get on board the digital groove train. Instead it was an opportunity to think about what all this stuff means from first principles in the comparative calm and clarity of two days away from work.
Where I think have got to is that we should stop talking about digital local plans. The term is too loaded – to the point where I think it is unhelpful. I will try to explain, and to persuade you that there is a better way of approaching a better version of the local plan system.
Reminder: what is digital?
Let’s begin with a recap then, from first principles. What is “digital”? and what might a “digital local plan” be therefore?
I think an obvious and helpful place for us to start is the local digital declaration. Five years ago it established a set of commitments, ambitions and principles. It is worth reading properly (and going on a course to reflect on) but the principles are
- Service redesign around user need
- Using modular technology and open standards
- Sharing information safely
- Leadership of organisational change
- Working in the open and sharing good practice
This is all good stuff, and we can probably add a bit of arm-waving about the changing power relationship between the citizen and service providers, and how organisations operate and innovate in the internet age. Plus (for councils) the caution of digital exclusion.
And the reason my course was called digital and agile is that digital principles (and change) are often partnered with agile working practices. Out with boring old waterfall project management, and in with nimble and iterative value generation.
So, what is a digital local plan?
Well, having had a good look around the internet I think it’s fairly easy to explain what digital local plans are not. They are not
- Published as pdfs
- only readable by humans
- Documents with “baked in” data and maps as rasters
It is much more difficult to say positively what they are. The planning for the future white paper twice places them in sentences with positive adjectives, but I’m not sure much is revealed about the substance of what makes them new:
The new-style digital Local Plan would also help local planning authorities to engage with strategic cross-boundary issues and use data-driven insights to assess local infrastructure needs to help decide what infrastructure is needed and where it should be located. [..]
Reform should be accompanied by a significant enhancement in digital and geospatial capability and capacity across the planning sector to support high-quality new digital Local Plans and digitally enabled decision-making.Planning for the future white paper consultation 2020
There are also lots of examples of people sprinkling other related words and concepts, each of them fine in their own way but taken together make it almost impossible to know how or where to start. The language of user needs combine with agile processes and improvements in technology and accessibility. It sounds great so why are plans still slow, expensive and difficult?
This was my revelation. A Local Plans IS NOT A SERVICE, so the language and culture of digital promotes lots of distracting but plausible concepts and methods to confuse us all. [clearly PLANNING APPLICATIONS ARE TOTALLY A SERVICE but let’s get to that elsewhere]. A local plan is the bunch of policies you need to deliver services against. More certain (and more rule-based) policy = more digitally enabled consenting service.
So, talking about digital local plans encourages confusion. Lots of well-meaning but misapplied models. A mismatch between agile (where responsiveness is prized) to local plan policies (where stability is prized). So what should we be talking about?
Modern local plans
Modern local plans will share some qualities. They will not all look and feel the same, for the obvious reason that places are very different. This bears repeating. Some places have coastlines, others have mountains. Setting out to make local plans consistent is wrong. Go and look at Southend, then look at Hereford. However that is not to say they should all be unique – planning has a long and noble history of copying and pasting, and that should not stop now.
In no particular order here are some qualities of modern local plans – if you like this is how I would organise and challenge a plan to see if it is “modern” and fit for purpose. To make it easier to use and explain I have divided it across 3 dimensions:
Currency (what does up to date mean?)
- Plans must be based on the 2023 NPPF
- They must mesh with National DM Policies
- Plans cannot ever be more than 5 years old without a genuine review
- Between reviews the plan should be stable and unchanging (or go through well understood phases of waxing and waning versions)
Utility (how does it work?)
- Data and measures should reflect standards and be spatial where necessary
- Spatial policies should be made available in response to a query – eg “which policies apply at this point?”
- Policies should be made available in response to a query – eg “what is policy XYZ?”
- Policies should where possible be expressed in measurable ways and reflect how they might be best monitored – they should be designed with a feedback loop in mind
Accessibility: (Will people be interested in it?)
- Plans should address both technical and non-technical audiences.
- Plans should explain what they are trying to achieve, and the choices that flow from the strategy
- Where appropriate plans should use maps, diagrams and pictures to show what they mean
- Where appropriate plans should link wider themes to the specifics of places
- The success of a plan should be reviewed routinely and reported publicly
I love lots of what “digital” gets us. I love lots of the mindset and some of the tools and methods when correctly applied. But it’s time to stop talking about “digital local plans” as if that means something in particular, and explain in simple language what a modern local plan should be, do, and look like. In my amateurish way I have started a list of what I think they are, and hopefully in another 18 months we will have some real examples to see how far away I was.