Wales has enjoyed devolved power to pass planning laws since 2011. Later this year, for the first time, it will. When it happens, digital technology won’t just be desirable for planning departments – it will be essential. We explain why.

Spatial planning will require greater collaboration

The Wales Planning Bill will redraw the planning map in Wales. At the highest level, a new National Development Framework will take its place in authorities’ statutory development plans. Through it Welsh ministers will control nationally-significant issues, somewhere between UK-significant infrastructure projects and local development plans. On top of this, three strategic planning panels will operate around Cardiff, Swansea, and the A55 corridor in North Wales. These will deal with cross-county boundary issues and aim to deliver sustainable development across the three most populous areas of Wales. The panels will be made up of local authority elected members and Welsh Government appointees with a technical remit.

The hope is that the Framework and the strategic panels will deliver better co-ordinated and consistent development beyond existing authority boundaries and other arbitrary lines on a map. The Bill states that while Local Development Plans (LDP) will remain, they will need to be reviewed within the context of the new Framework and Strategic Plan areas. Adopted plans will also have “expiry dates” to put the onus on planning authorities to adopt LDPs in a timely manner. One thing is sure – it will need a high level of integration, co-ordination and communication between the new “bodies” and existing local authority planning functions for all this to be successful.

This is one area where digital technology, and in particular web technologies, have an essential role to play. Secure, cloud-based software already connects millions of people worldwide. So long as a user has an Internet-enabled device and a compatible web browser, there are no geographical boundaries. Delivered in this way, digital mapping can help streamline workflows, consolidate planning maps in one place, and allow users to interact with them. For the new strategic panels especially, the ability to “overlay” interactive maps for these new plans with maps for existing local development plans, and project manage the whole as a joint exercise, will make the process easier to manage and visualise. Visualisation will be important especially where public consultations are involved. Plan making in Wales and the maps to which they relate will need to be easy to access and interpret for members of the public as well as strategic panels, authority users and officers.

Mandatory public consultation will demand streamlined communication

The bill introduces mandatory pre-application consultation for an as-yet unspecified application threshold. A pre-application report will be required that will most likely include public consultation. The aim here is for communities with valuable local knowledge to work with applicants towards mutually acceptable proposals. Applicants will have to listen to the community and respond appropriately, while it’s anticipated that communities for their part will be less prone to NIMBYism if consultation is more widely adopted at an early stage.

Again, these ideals appear sound in principle but their effectiveness will be dependent on how consultation is delivered. Many authorities allow online commenting on planning applications and planning policies but for a true two-way dialogue and development process it needs specialist consultation software to enable this and to manage it effectively.

Digital e-consultation systems give the public and other interested parties a greater opportunity to be involved. They can submit representations from home, work, or even on the move from mobile devices. E-consultation can be deployed as a cloud-based service. A service like this, hosted on a remote server, removes the headache of trying to integrate a self-hosted system with different software products and technologies. It also means roles and permissions for accessing the system can be configured for all stakeholders with a vested interest in the consultation process and outcomes, including PINS. And because the software is built specifically for consultation, it delivers what is required and can be adapted to suit both stakeholders and the public looking for transparency and accountability.

With the Bill promising greater and wider consultation with communities, local authorities will need to have a robust and scalable consultation system in place. They will have to balance this against ever-shrinking budgets. Fortunately, the experience of authorities that use our e-consultation system [Conwy] shows that officer time spent dealing with planning policy representations is reduced by 40%.

Beyond streamlining workflows and providing greater access, e-consultation and integrated digital mapping visualisations can be quickly deployed in multiple local areas. Our software is currently being used to deliver a unique first for Wales: a community-led Placemaking Plan in Abergele, Conwy, [Abergele] where consultation tools and interactive mapping are key components to helping residents and businesses have more of a direct say in shaping ideas for the  Plan. Conwy County Council, which already uses the same software for its spatial planning service, hopes to repeat the exercise in other communities across its administrative area. As the software is designed for repeated use the features and functions deployed in the Abergele “model” can go live in other areas within one week. Naturally, this makes digital services excellent value for money too – once developed, they can be “installed” elsewhere quickly and at cost fractions. It all means that Conwy have continuity in how they measure and monitor each instance of the software being used, allowing them to analyse both itemised and aggregated data relating to each Placemaking Plan.

Time to move on from the old ways

From this year onwards, there will be more pressure than ever on planning authorities to go digital for plan making in Wales, both for mapping and consultation provision. The technology cannot be ignored. Aside from its cost benefit, it has the power to enable Welsh Government’s vision for sustainable planning across the country. Most authorities already use web technology for many services, but these tend to be more transactional and authority-specific. For planning policy it’s different, because of those extra requirements – collaboration and consultation.

In October last year Welsh Government published its Positive Planning paper, supporting cultural change, active stewardship, improving collaboration and improving local delivery. If this is to be achieved it’s up to planners to take the lead, and deliver value for plan making in Wales by working together with neighbouring authorities using shared digital tools.