The drive for digital
Earlier this month, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) announced the second round of allocation from their Proptech Engagement fund, which seeks to help councils pilot new digital technology to ensure more resident engagement in the local decision making process. Close to 30 councils will get a share of the £3.25m pot, which the Government say will help “empower communities and give local people greater say in shaping their neighbourhoods, towns and cities".
Part of the messaging from the DLUHC is to encourage “underrepresented groups such as renters and those from black and ethnic minority groups”.
Example of schemes include:
- Watford Borough Council will develop a digital platform to help residents have their say on how to spend contributions from developers towards infrastructure in their community.
- Walsall Council will use funding to encourage underrepresented community voices to have their say on the regeneration of Bloxwich and Walsall Town Centre, which are supported by the Towns Fund.
- Plymouth Council, alongside South Hams District Council and West Devon Borough Council, will produce a set of interactive maps for residents to identify what infrastructure is needed in their local area.
The funding has been welcomed by the selected councils. Many of the engagement tools and methods currently adopted are outdated, clunky and simply not in line with the digital age. These new tools will allow for a more effective consultation process and hopefully fewer nasty surprises at planning committee meetings.
The directly-elected Mayor of Watford, Peter Taylor said: “The Planning for the Future White Paper sets out a vision to increase the use of digital engagement within the planning process. These council-led projects will enable us to better understand the barriers to overcome.”
This funding is certainly a step in the right direction for the future of the planning system. However, it is important that the basics are not left behind. The first announcement of Proptech funding was back in October 2021. After this news, the Head of Engage/Local here at SECNewgate, Perry Miller, noted that new digital tools can only be effective if the system encourages decision makers to engage with applicants and communities throughout the pre-app process. This certainly still holds true. A council could have a well-functioning digital engagement platform, but with no early engagement strategy, applications are still at risk at the Committee stage.
Overall, while these are only pilot projects, there is certainly opportunity to further expand the digital planning network across the UK. See for example the Greater London Area Planning Data Hub, a digital platform that provides near real-time planning data to the 36 planning authorities in Greater London. This project has proven largely effective in terms of connecting citywide data in order to assist authorities with future planning needs.
It will be interesting to see how effective the pilot schemes are in practice.