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How digital tools can help

David King, Local Trust

The planning system has a reputation for being baffling and broken. Neighbourhood planning is changing that, by giving residents a voice and role in shaping their area. Often coming with experience from outside of the planning system, residents can come up with some creative and fun approaches to planning, yet the experience of the first wave of neighbourhood planners is that we need better tools to engage communities and gather evidence.

In December 2017, Local Trust and Neighbourhood Planners.London ran an event to explore some of the digital tools that are emerging to meet the needs of planners (or #plantech). For anyone looking to support neighbourhood planners, there were some lessons:

1. There are more tools than ever - how do neighbourhood planners access them?

We invited providers of #plantech to pitch their tools to neighbourhood planners. From mapping citizen engagement, to installing sensors in a neighbourhood, these tools could be a real asset to planners. To build on this interest, planning groups need more time to play with tools and some clear support from the provider of neighbourhood planning support services. Department for Communities and Local Government tender for support services mentions providing support for open-data and digital tools, but this needs to go further. We’re making a list of #plantech for neighbourhood planners as a starting point for improving awareness and access - see under Resources when available.

2. We need better data

It’s striking that most #plantech is developed in areas where data is good quality and open. Unfortunately, understanding socio-economic data is just one part of the planning. ‘Hard’ data like accurate mapping from the OS Mastermap or land titles from Land Registry is still either prohibitively expensive or incomplete. The announcement of the Geospatial Data Commission is positive, and could be an enabler for citizen involvement in planning.

3. #plantech needs to be trusted and credible

Digital tools give planners direct access to datasets and the tools to analyse them. This can be hugely empowering and lead to better planning, but only if everyone trusts the analysis and evidence base a group of residents have put together. Trust and credibility could be built by working with large and familiar planning consultants as part of the process, or by developing a blind peer review process for evidence in neighbourhood plans.

4. We’re not yet doing enough to improve communication between planning authorities and citizens

While councils are increasingly coming around to the benefits of neighbourhood planning, their systems and process are too difficult to work with. Neighbourhood planners told us they need a small team just to monitor planning committee meetings (even with RSS feeds available from many council websites.) When we mapped tools on to each stage of the neighbourhood planning process, it was clear there were few tools that looked to support communication with the local authority. Might planners benefit from TheyWorkForYou being developed at a local authority level?

5. You can’t automate everything!

Those with experience of engaging with a community can be confused by digital tools that support engagement. Can you really automate a conversation between residents about where extra homes should go? After our workshop, planners agreed that digital tools should enhance engagement, allowing you to access ‘hard-to-reach’ groups or make sense of data from hundreds of conversations.

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