Dave Mann, managing director at dxw, explores how planning departments can build shared digital capabilities and cultures that support agile digital services

With the squeeze on local government budgets having continued over the last decade, planning departments are under a lot of pressure. Councils have been forced to take stringent short term cost-cutting measures which make strategic decision making in planning difficult, with a delicate balance to be struck between running services and delivering the housing units needed to meet local demand.

It’s fair to say that some parts of the planning process are more digitised than others. Digital tools are being used by departments with most planning applications, for example, being submitted electronically. Services though, have lagged behind.

The use of digital platforms for online consultations and community engagement is growing, but still leaves most people out of the loop. It’s difficult for communities to keep on top of proposals and applications or know what stage the local planning process is at. In practice, plan making – the vision setting for local planning – is done by experts and planning enthusiasts who have the time and knowledge required to get involved. While development proposals are drawn up by builders and developers with their own objectives front and centre.

Communities have an interest in both, but the system is opaque at best.

Creating a planning system for the 21st century

The recently published Planning for the Future white paper suggests catapulting the system into the 21st century. Moving the planning process away from notices on lamp posts and PDFs tucked away on council websites, so it can handle the problems faced by today’s communities.

Central to the proposed changes is a significant increase in the use of technology.  The stated aim is to speed things up and create a much more transparent process that members of the public can properly engage with. Giving communities a greater say about the overall nature and location of developments with more involvement from the outset (and removing the planning application stage).

The white paper says: “Reform should be accompanied by a significant enhancement in digital and geospatial capability and capacity across the planning sector to support high quality new digital local plans and digitally-enabled decision-making.” Without these improvements, there’s a real risk that local communities could actually end up with even less input into the planning process under the new system than they have now. There’s been plenty of legitimate concern expressed about this.

Building a digital-first culture and making the most of stretched resources

This level of digital transformation will be a challenge for many, already stretched, local authorities. The resourcing and skills gaps in a lot of smaller authorities in particular, will be quite extreme.

Planning departments will need the right people with the right skills at all levels to successfully reform the current system. Ultimately the success and adoption of digital comes down to a shift in culture, not just having a few people in the department with the right technical skills. It needs strong leadership that understands the need to move beyond traditional structures, processes and systems. It means a shift in individual and departmental behaviours towards taking an iterative people-centred approach to creating and improving digital services, with the ability to absorb and respond to change.

Even with the right capability, building new digital planning systems can be hugely expensive and there’s a question about where the money will come from. The answer could be shared platforms and services with different local authorities pooling their resources. Or failing that, at least a shared codebase. There’s a strong argument for planning departments to share code openly for others to reuse and improve upon. Though it’s actually quite hard to take someone else’s code and configure and implement it for your own uses, especially when you’re talking about data services.

The problem is that, as yet, there are few good models for operating shared services in local government. Last year we worked with the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government to investigate ways to support better collaboration. We found that failure to make shared services work happens for a number of reasons; unaligned objectives, local politics or mistrust being among them. Often the conditions for successful cross-council collaboration happen by accident rather than design. It mostly boils down to relationships.

A new model for cooperation in planning

So how can planning departments cooperate in a way that reduces duplication of effort, without the dilution of local variation and innovation? There are issues with all of the models that might immediately spring to mind.

Local authorities may struggle to build, and fund on an ongoing basis, a team to operate a platform on behalf of others. Ownership of shared services by a private company or central government means the needs of local departments may, over time, become secondary. Open source projects can be quite fragile things.

For a model to work it needs to balance the needs of different local authorities and central government and support long term investment in a team to operate and improve a shared platform as needs evolve. This could be some form of separate legal entity perhaps, owned, paid for, and managed cooperatively by multiple local authorities (and possibly other stakeholders).

It may well be time to take the iterative, emergent approach of agile development in digital services, and apply it to an iterative, emergent approach to creating new organisations to operate them. Start small, see if it works, iterate and then scale.

Playing the long game

It’s clear that the reshaping of the UK’s planning system won’t be easy or happen overnight. It’s also likely to be very costly at a time when budgets are going down, not up. As we begin to see the impact of Covid on local government finances, it remains to be seen whether the ambitious planning reforms set out in the white paper will remain front and centre in the new economic reality.

But the need to embrace digital and modernise the planning system to meet the needs of communities and support the recovery, is not going away. It will take considerable efforts for planning departments to transform at scale, and this is all the more reason to work incrementally, in the open and to collaborate wherever possible. Taking the digitisation process step by step is the best way to see results.

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