Open Digital Planning: A New Hope

As some of you may already be aware, the Planning department secured funding earlier this year from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) to be part of Open Digital Planning. A community of forward-thinking local authorities working together to help transform planning systems.

This includes (but not exclusive to) the design, development and testing of two new products in the planning space:

  1. Plan X – a new planning application system
  2. BOPS – back office planning system

We join Barnet, Canterbury and Epsom (not to mention all the other local authorities who have preceded us in this journey) to help make a real difference in Planning software for our staff and residents.

Championed by the Assistant Director of Planning (Sarah Scannell) I join the programme as product owner alongside a dedicated team of staff covering planning (Andrew Fulford and Mohammed Abdellah), enforcement (James Wagstaff), data (Jason Smith, Nick Tringham, Stephen Jones) and delivery (Andrew Eden and Alexandra Valentine).

Some in planning may even recall an initial demo of Plan X back in August so in the coming weeks and months, we will be looking to engage more frequently with the wider planning department on all things Open digital planning.

This represents a real opportunity for us to help change the market in planning software so that the future will have more options, more innovation and more up to date software. A new hope if you will, that may in the long term replace our legacy planning systems and help us overcome some of the challenges we currently face.

It has also been great collaborating with other local authorities and partners from DHLUC, as no matter where you are in the country, inevitably we all face similar challenges in the planning arena. Rather like an old family get together, Uncle John might be able to shed some new light on how to do things that we may not have considered before.

Our first Plan X service to find out if you need planning permission has now been set up (with Birmingham’s corporate branding and logo) but please don’t go trying it out just yet as it will be asking you for a postcode in Camden, so it remains very much work in progress. I did go on Rightmove to find a property in Camden so I could try the service. For some reason, the app defaulted to the Highest Price first so I was presented with what could only be described as a castle fit for a King (overlooking Regents Park) at the mere paltry guide price of £25,500,000.

“Very nice” said my wife as I seemed to lose her there just for a minute, I suspect reminiscing over childhood dreams not realised. “If only you had married a Prince my dear but alas, you have to put up with me in this humble 3 bed semi. Erm…any chance of a cuppa tea luv”.  Nothing like a cup of tea to lift the mood hey. I did also suggest we watch Shrek in the hope that she might appreciate life with a Prince is not all it’s cracked up to be, but sadly, she didn’t seem all that interested.

Anyway, I was going to submit a planning enquiry to build a moat around said castle but somehow, I doubt that proposal would get very far. Then again, come to think of it, a King should not be bothered with the trivial inconvenience of planning permission. I’ll send my squire on horseback instead, to hereby declare his majesty’s proposals in person to Camden Council. That’s the life.

Oh well, back to reality. So to date, we have completed and shared our Article 4 directions and currently the priority for our data lead is to cleanse and publish our GIS layers in accordance with the guidelines on for:

  • Conservation Areas
  • Tree Preservation Orders
  • Listed Buildings
  • Article 4 Directions

We are also in discussions with DLUCH on:

  • Article 3 directions
  • Classified Roads which will be taken from the Ordnance survey

Being data ready is the future and critical to ensure that users can be informed online of the planning constraints impacting their project, something we are unable to do currently. We then aim to get our first service ‘Find out if you need planning permission’ configured and bring in other experienced staff in planning to test it. I shall be encouraging them to break it if they can as that’s always a good place to start with any testing.

This is by no means a top-down approach looking to impose something new for the sake of it that does not bring about real benefits or improvements. Rather, engagement and feedback from registration and planning staff, alongside user research with agents and residents will be key in pushing for improvements to the service. Just for this one service alone, we are looking to realise the benefits of improved usability, increased efficiency and reduction in handling time for our registration team who currently spend a lot of time managing pre-application enquiries.

I think that covers where we are at the moment but should anyone want to know more about Open Digital Planning, please feel free to drop me a line. You can also see the list of other planning services that have been developed or currently in development. The long term roadmap of course, is to build all planning application types but it is rather early in the journey to say what that might look like just yet but do watch this space.

…….To be continued

Product Manager

Open Digital Planning

Imran Sajad

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