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Scotland’s digital planning strategy unveiled

Words: Roger Milne
Digital binary

The Scottish Government has published an ambitious digital strategy for planning designed to transform how it is delivered and shaped, committing £35 million over the next five years to achieve this goal.

Ministers insisted that this programme would make it easier for planners to work together and for members of the public to get involved in creating and shaping their places. A new data and technology system, to begin development in early 2021, will provide a single place to access services and information about planning.

Research undertaken by the RTPI suggests that over 10 years this could result in £200 million in economic benefits to users of the planning system.

The strategy sets out a framework of five ‘missions’ with goals and priority actions. These involve unlocking the value of planning data; delivering an end-to end digital planning experience; creating the conditions for digital to flourish and using digital tools to drive collaboration and engagement. The strategy pointed out that “we live in an age where we can instantly check news and weather, order goods and services, and receive delivery updates using our devices or voice assistants like Alexa”.

“We should be able to access and engage with public services, including the planning system, with the same level of ease. Public sector services urgently need to meet and surpass expectations of our digital services.

“Imagine being able to ask a voice assistant, ‘What is the current status of my planning application?’, or being able to view and comment on a 3D interactive model of the local development plan for the place you live – having a system which allows you to get involved in shaping the place you are in, not just by commenting on existing applications, but by giving your community the online digital tools that it needs to suggest, promote and collaborate on concepts like 20-minute neighbourhoods to create places where everything people need is within a 20-minute walk.

“We recognise that increasingly digital is the way people want to interact with public services, and that expectations continue to speed up. We also know that planning in Scotland faces the challenges experienced elsewhere in the public sector, achieving more with finite resources.

“We need to do things differently, to look at how technology and data can help us make the best use of our resources.”

The 92-page document stressed that the process of applying for planning permission should be clear, easy to understand and follow, and digitally enabled, giving applicants greater clarity throughout the process.

“A smart planning application approach that uses machine readable standardised forms will help streamline and provide consistency, forming the foundation for innovation.

“We believe that there’s huge potential through use of smart data-driven guidance and policy, to give clear information to potential applicants at the very earliest point in the process based upon their location, and what they want to do”.

The strategy argues that a digitally enabled system for development planning should enable spatial development plans to play a key role in bringing all those involved in planning together to collaborate and prepare plans.

“Evidenced through our horizon scanning work, we believe there are much more effective and engaging ways of preparing and presenting plans. There is also scope for digital solutions to achieve integration – from national to local and community scales and across different interests, for example – by linking with infrastructure programmes and regional land use partnerships.”

The strategy says a future digital system “should allow users to see the alignment and relationships much more clearly between community, local authority, regional and national policies plans and outcomes by having the right data available in real time.

“With a standardised data-led approach for spatial planning we ensure data can be integrated vertically (across geographical scales) and at the heart of engagement using digital tools.”

For communities developing their local place plans, this means ensuring that more people are able to contribute to the conversation about place, and to channel their views meaningfully to planning authorities.

“Through our CivTech® challenge we have already been working with The Future Fox start-up to develop the PlaceBuilder product which will publicly launch in March 2021.

“This digital engagement tool helps communities shape their communities and produce local place plans, then provide the data and information to the planning authority in an easily consumable way that they can use as part of the LDP process.”

RTPI Scotland director Craig McClaren said the institute was “delighted to see the launch of the digital planning strategy and that £35 million has been allocated to deliver it.

“We have always felt that there is real potential in digitised planning services and so are pleased to have been involved in the strategy’s development.

“It recognises the vital role that planners can play in reviving the economy, tackling inequality and meeting net-zero targets by 2050, and, that digital planning services can be transformative in supporting communities to have stronger role in shaping where they live, in opening up data to provide certainty for developers and investors and in reimaging our neighbourhoods, towns and cities to meet the needs of a post Covid world.

“We look forward to working with the Scottish government in implementing it.”

Planning minister Kevin Stewart insisted: “Over the next five years we will be building a world-leading digital planning system, helping connect people with their places, influence positive change, strengthen decision-making and focus on delivery of high-quality planned development.

“Introducing new technology and ways of working in the planning system will simplify and speed up the application and assessment processes. It will give planners the tools and data they need to collaborate and improve decision making, making it easier to understand the planning process and get involved at every stage."

Chief planner John McNairney said: “This strategy marks the start of a long and complex journey to digitally transform Scotland’s planning system. As we progress it will continue to be refreshed and evolve as we learn and adapt. “It will flex to respond to future technologies and as we deliver improvements through the transformation programme.

“We don’t underestimate this challenge but believe in Scotland we have the right ingredients and drive to succeed and help create a planning system fit for the future.”

More details of the digital strategy can be accessed on the Scottish Government website.