There are significant changes on their way that will affect the way Councils develop planning policy in Wales. In this article we take a look at how OpusMap and OpusConsult provide Welsh Councils with tangible benefits and advantages in how they plan for and meet the technical and logistical challenges that will come under the new proposals for the country’s planning system. Ongoing plan-related projects developed using the two systems already point the way forward for Welsh Councils to work more proactively and efficiently from today irrespective of the changes that are coming tomorrow.

The Planning (Wales) Bill proposes several changes to planning and plan development in Wales. These include the introduction of a National Development Framework (or National Plan) and of strategic development plans (SDPs) in key regional areas still to be defined. In turn these new initiatives will affect the way Welsh Councils prepare and maintain their own Local Development Plans which will now be subject to time-limits as part of a strategy to keep LDPs under more regular review.

There is still uncertainty on what the full impact of the Planning (Wales) Bill will be on Welsh Councils. A number of its proposals and requirements are likely to take a few years to bed down as the details are deliberated and mapped out. The unsettled waters for planning that the Bill will create are muddied further by the recently announced proposal from the WA’s Public Services Minister to reduce the number of Welsh Councils from 22 to perhaps as few as 8.

With such uncertainty over the months and years ahead it’s worth reviewing how our OpusMap and OpusConsult systems already help Welsh Councils save time and money in their plan development workflows. At the same time we highlight how new and ongoing plan development projects that rely on the two systems provide both focus and direction for Welsh Councils to work independently and collaboratively at both a strategic and a local level irrespective of the extent of legislative changes to the planning system that may come into force.

The Planning (Wales) Bill indicates that there will be both top-down and bottom-up pressure on Welsh Councils in how they develop their plans and their plan development strategies. It’s important that Welsh Councils can adapt to meet these challenges. Now is the time for Welsh Councils to fully embrace the benefits and advantages that web technologies provide. OpusMap and OpusConsult are already proven to bring financial savings. They help Welsh Councils be more proactive and forward-looking in shaping and developing planning policy; whether at a national, regional or local level.

Collaborate and Consult

Anglesey and Gwynedd Councils Joint Planning Unit (JPU) use both OpusMap and OpusConsult in support of their LDP under a collaborative licence. With OpusMap the JPU can create and publish any kind of interactive map whether related to the LDP or to any level of spatial planning at a departmental or corporate level. Similarly OpusConsult provides the JPU with a turnkey system for publishing and managing any consultation exercise it undertakes in support of developing its plan and various plan-related issues, including large-scale planning applications.

Our collaborative licence allows the Councils to use both systems when working collaboratively but also, if required, when working independently. It doesn’t matter if staff work in one office or across a number of Council offices because the integrated systems are hosted on our servers and are accessed 24/7 from any computer with a web browser. The underlying web technologies that support OpusMap and OpusConsult ensure that both new and established workflows are not compromised by geography or by the size and scale of participation in whatever plan development issue is in progress. In other words the systems allow virtual teams to be set up to work in developing planning policy either on a permanent basis (like the JPU) or on an ad-hoc basis.

An example of an ad-hoc development initiative is the Abergele Place Plan (APP) being overseen by Conwy County Council. This is a new initiative from the Council to support a community-led plan in the North Wales coastal town of Abergele. OpusMap is being used to produce the website for the APP which offers a number of features that encourage community-wide participation in the plan development process. Stakeholders in the APP can register via the website and become online participants in the consultation process. They can comment on ideas already submitted for the APP as well as submit their own ideas for consideration. Registered stakeholders don’t have to be residents of Abergele, the system allows participation by anyone – resident or business – with a vested interest in the APP.

What these projects demonstrate is the versatility of web-based systems to help councils develop plans and planning policy in Wales at both a macro and a micro level. Once the systems have been configured and staff have been trained in using the systems, each licensed Council can set their own preferences as to how widely they wish to collaborate and consult on any plan, planning issue, map or document. There are no technological or geographical barriers to accessibility or to participation because the systems are accessed via a standard web browser and do not reside on a back office computer or network.

In the context of the Planning (Wales) Bill and planning policy in Wales in general, the OpusMap and OpusConsult systems can be used by any licensed Council to oversee and contextualise its plan development at any level: local, regional or national. Ad-hoc virtual teams can be established in the systems to enable collaborative working and to support consultation and engagement with stakeholders from any location throughout Wales no matter what level of planning or plan development is being undertaken.

Beyond Boundaries

Administrative boundaries are simply arbitrary lines on a map. Whether there are 22 Councils in Wales or 8 Councils the spatial extent of Wales doesn’t change; the North Wales coast doesn’t move nor does Cardiff Bay. Residents and businesses continue to live and work in the same urban and rural locations as before.

OpusMap and OpusConsult can help Welsh Councils to think and work beyond their own administrative boundary. Many planning issues invite strategic oversight, consultation and participation that traverse these arbitrary lines on a map: waste and minerals, the environment, housing, transportation, economic development. OpusConsult can be used to publish and consult on any kind of document whether it’s authored by one Council or by many Councils. Representations can be submitted by anyone who registers in the system whether they’re based in Conwy, Caerphilly or Cardigan. The administration systems of our web-based software allow Councils to set the preferences, limits and terms of reference for any map or consultation published. This applies whether it’s full access and participation by the public in a Neighbourhood/Placemaking Plan or restricted access by statutory consultees only in determining housing development requirements for North Wales for the next 20 years.

Looking out from within and looking in from without

The features and functions of OpusMap and OpusConsult provide Welsh Councils with very transparent, open and consistent methods for developing plans and for engaging with stakeholders both within and without their administrative boundaries.

OpusMap already includes all the Ordnance Survey’s OpenData for Wales so no Welsh Council needs to restrict its mapping, collaboration and consultation activities to its own administrative boundaries. As soon as a Council becomes a licensee we can add additional large scale (MasterMap) data and street gazetteer data to the system so that the scale of map display and the scale of participation and engagement can be simultaneously strategic and localised. Stakeholders can be engaged with both the bigger picture and the detailed picture using the same system, mapping and data. It doesn’t matter how or where a site is shown and identified on a map, what’s more important is that there is both consistency and transparency in the presentation of maps and data.

Users remain confident that when they interact with the map and data the information is correct at any scale or to any geographic extent. Both iterative versions and definitive versions of maps can be created and published via OpusMap so that the plan development and publication cycle of draft, adoption and review can be undertaken as and when required in an efficient and timely manner. Over the years Conwy Council estimates it has saved some £20,000 in LDP print costs alone by using OpusMap. If LDPs must be reviewed and updated more regularly those types of cost savings will only increase.

OpusConsult can be used to consult on any kind of plan-related document, from a Core Strategy through to a SPD or a planning application. Its administration systems allows all representations and responses to be managed in one place. It doesn’t matter if a submission or representation has come via the website, via email or in the post, OpusConsult’s administration system provides tools to manage them all so that responses can be written centrally and distributed accordingly to each respondent in the Council’s contact database. As a result a Council is able to monitor and manage the progress of any consultation accurately and efficiently. OpusConsult’s Program Officer module means that all issues, representations and responses collated over the lifetime of a plan’s development can be formatted, reported and scrutinised according to the criteria set by PINs. One English Council estimated it saved nearly £40,000 of staff time in one year when it compared OpusConsult to its previous system and to how quickly and efficiently consultations could be managed and representations processed.

Both OpusMap and OpusConsult are bi-lingual which can only help now that the Planning (Wales) Bill makes Welsh a material consideration in planning decisions.

In summary

“Changes proposed in the Planning (Wales) Bill may take years to come into effect”

  • OpusMap and OpusConsult can be adapted by Councils as and when changes come into effect so that workflows are fit for purpose
  • The use of hosted and browser-based web technologies mean changes can be implemented more quickly, efficiently and transparently saving both time and money

“A National Development Framework and strategic sub-regional plans are to be created in the Planning (Wales) Bill”

  • OpusMap and OpusConsult support collaboration and consultation in the planning process at any strategic level and to any geographic extent
  • OpusMap and OpusConsult support both top-down and a bottom-up strategies and workflows in support of plan development
  • Hosted web technologies remove technical and locational barriers in how national, regional and local planning policies are accessed and developed

“Local plans are to have expiry dates set”

  • OpusMap and OpusConsult have tools and features that allow data and content to be easily edited and updated so that plans and policies can be developed, published and reviewed quickly, efficiently and iteratively
  • OpusMap and OpusConsult cut down on the need to print maps and documents in high volumes or the need to print at all
  • There are no user limits in any of our licences so teams can expand and contract to meet the demands and the deadlines set by the planning process

“Developers are to be obliged to conduct and report on pre-application consultation”

  • OpusMap and OpusConsult can be used for undertaking mapping and consultation campaigns with targeted stakeholders and audiences; engagement can be around one issue or many issues
  • OpusConsult includes tools for monitoring, analysing and reporting on any consultation exercise and for sharing with stakeholders
  • OpusMap and OpusConsult can include both internal and external users to the Council so that planning officers and developers can work collaboratively and consistently in one centralised system