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Local plans... Where do they hide them? And why?

DATE : 08 April 2019

The local plan (or local development framework, or the plan, or the local spatial development plan to give it some of its other many other historical, informal and equally confusing names) is one of the most important documents wherever you live. It is quite likely to have a role in deciding whether your local pub stays open, how long it will take you to get to work, what kinds of jobs might be available for your children and many more important and engaging issues for the public. It is a vision for a place.

Yet, most people probably don’t know a local plan even exists, still less its importance. This may be due to the dry and jargon-heavy language used by the gatekeepers of planning, purposefully or otherwise. Or perhaps they just don’t know where to find it.

A survey released last year by Society for IT practitioners in the public sector (SOCITM) helps us to quantify just how inaccessible the local plan is. I’ll let the results speak for themselves.

“A quarter of councils surveyed failed our ‘essential question’ – ‘Is there a high-level explanation of the role of the Local Plan (on a web page, not a PDF)?’”

If you can’t explain or don’t explain what a local plan is, why should people care?

“Mostly, site users are left to dive into PDFs of up to 250 pages in length (often with no warning about size) to try to extract the information they are most interested in. Little wonder that only 37% of sites were able to answer positively our question – ‘Can I find out easily which areas (if any) within the local authority footprint are designated for housing development?’”

This is the most horrifying statistic for me. Only 15% of councils looked beyond publishing a PDF. Yes, it takes time, money and resources (none of which they have) for local planning authorities to satisfy the minimum requirements for publishing local plan.

Many maps featured a key with several dozen colours and patterns to distinguish the various types of development or policy. These were often extremely hard to tell apart – especially for someone with poor vision or colour-blindness. Some GIS maps exported to PDF required keys that had to be downloaded separately – a usability nightmare.”

Mapping a new approach to local plans

Sitting behind these maps is a wealth of data and insight, often expensively outsourced by local authorities to consultants, and then summarised in a poorly designed map. How can it be that we all use maps on our phones every day to understand and navigate the world, quickly, easily and cheaply, yet to access planning data you require a masters in GIS, an expensive software license and a PC available only to two people in a local authority?

A large part of the solution is to think digitally, to enhance accessibility to the public and, equally importantly, machines. As well as the written document, there should be a digital version of the plan that allows people to interrogate and review what it means to their city, their neighbourhood and their lives.

FuturePlan is one example of how visions for a place could be more impactful. It is a user experience prototype developed by Future Cities Catapult and Birmingham City Council that explores how you could better communicate the impact of new development over time, by better capturing data from planning applications and masterplans. It focuses on collecting data about the economic, social and environmental impacts of new development and allows you to see these over time and with reference to particular developments.

With more digital and interactive plans, you will get far more engagement in the plan making process, new products and services that use the underlying data for planning and other purposes. And hopefully, and most importantly, more people would know what a local plan is and how important it is.

Stefan Webb is Director of Digitising Planning and Standards at Connected Places Catapult. You can follow him on Twitter here: @Stef_W

This blog originally appeared as part of techUK’s #PlaceBasedInnovation campaign from 1-4 April. You can read our blog and other insights here.

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