Going from the physical to the digital

Ahead of Steve Quartermain’s #inconversation with Civic Voice, our policy lead, Sarah James shares her perspectives on the future of the planning system. She suggests that utilising IT can make the system more Accessible, Balanced, Collaborative, and Democratic. 

The findings of a recent RTPI survey show that despite progress on digital engagement during Covid-19, challenges clearly still remain and we would therefore like to see a renewed focus on resourcing IT systems that allow widespread public participation via digital methods.

So, how can we carry out consultations when we cannot meet face-to-face?

For practical reasons, the impacts of coronavirus have necessitated local authorities, developers, and communities to innovate, and shift processes online via more digital methods of communication. Many consultations have been postponed and some local authorities have resorted to delegating decisions to officers. Traditional methods of consultation, engagement and committee decision making are undergoing fundamental change.

Some community groups are concerned that there will be a lack of proper scrutiny of planning applications and that resources for planning will be squeezed even further in future. This is understandable and reinforces the lack of trust that people have in the planning system.

Nevertheless, these shifts are likely to become permanent. This was highlighted by Councillor Clare Coghill, Leader of Waltham Forest Council when she discussed the council’s approach to planning during the coronavirus pandemic, recently saying, “The genie is out of the bottle, we will not be going back to the traditional ways of working.” This view was also supported by a Comres survey of UK councillors which found that virtual public exhibitions, webinar consultations and social media will be effective ways for developers to conduct planning consultations. Clearly, more digital methods of engagement are here to stay, and this could facilitate more permanent change to consultation practices.

Traditional and digital will go hand in hand. With this in mind, whilst digital access is widespread, there is a need to cater for those who do not have access, the skills, or desire to engage digitally. Equally, it is also likely that many people may not want to, or may be unable to, attend public events for many months after restrictions are eased. Both factors are likely to adversely affect the older population or other at-risk groups, who are often the greatest participants in the planning system. Traditional methods will continue to be needed and used.

On the flip side, hopefully the move towards the digital will bring in new audiences. Early evidence suggests that this might be the case. Both Somerset Council and Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea reported a significant increase in the number of people registering to participate in ‘virtual planning meetings’. This is positive. The more people that participate, the more transparent and accountable councils will become. This can only be a good thing for the planning system, as we look to re-build trust in it.

We have challenges, but they can be overcome. We are ready to support councils.

Councils need to drastically increase their use of ‘Plantech’ to engage with communities. Utilising IT can make the system more accessible, balanced, collaborative, and democratic.

To quote Cllr Coghill again, “The genie is out of the bottle, we will not be going back to the traditional ways of working.”


Civic Voice is campaigning for an ABCD planning system. Read our manifesto at http://www.civicvoice.org.uk/manifesto

A version of this article was first published by the RTPI in May 2020 as part of a wider response from experts in the planning profession on the profession’s response to Covid-19.

Read the original article and other pieces here.

Going from the physical to the digital

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