Council websites need to do more to make ‘the Local Plan’ accessible to their residents – not just property, planning and development professionals, according tot he latest Better Connected survey.
Local people, regarded by the Government as ‘vital in shaping’ the Local Plan for where they live, may be excluded from the process by the way these Plans are communicated on local authority websites, the survey of 210 district councils in England and Northern Ireland found.
Reviewers were given the task to Find out about Local Plan, a task that is likely to become commonplace given the Government’s aim ‘for every area in England to have an adopted local plan that sets out local planning policies and identifies how land is used, determining what will be built where’.
The survey report notes that there is a mandatory consultation process around local plans, but as with other local planning issues, these tend to engage property and development professionals and small numbers of residents whose property or other interests may be directly affected.
The Better Connected survey aimed to assess how well councils are taking the opportunity to engage all residents with the future of where they live, how well local plans are being promoted, and whether information about them is being presented in ways that are accessible to the general public. findings included:
- Although nearly 40% of councils surveyed got sufficient marks to be designated ‘good’ and nearly 10% ‘very good’ for the task, reviewers’ comments suggest that councils need to do considerably more to communicate their Local Plans.
- Some councils started well with a good introduction on their website but then reverted to technical jargon and terms that were not explained or sufficiently contextualised for the general public.
- Not enough high level information was presented on web pages, leaving the impression that planning departments regard the communications task as done simply by uploading huge pdf documents or providing links to hard-to-use GIS maps designed for professional use.
- Getting a grasp on where councils were at in the timeline towards adoption could be difficult, providing an obvious deterrent for anyone thinking of getting involved in the consultation process. For the completely uninitiated, sites were often lacking in simple explanations of what a ‘Local Plan’ is and what it is for.
- The use of maps to explain local plans came in for particular criticism, with reviewers describing this as ‘simply terrible’ and ‘appalling’. Too many sites linked to extremely technical GIS systems with highly complicated and (to the layperson) meaningless filters. ‘There were several interactive maps that I gave up on’ commented one reviewer.
- Just over a third of sites (36%) were able to answer positively the question Can I find an easy to use map showing locations of at least some key aspects the local plan of interest to residents eg housing allocations, industrial/economic development, flood and conservation areas?
- The key phrase here is ‘easy to use’. Most of the public have come to online maps via Google or Apple. They do not have the skills to use the sort of GIS tools that planners use every day, and it should be assumed that they will not engage with maps presented in this way.
- Leaving all information in pdf documents, rather than picking out headline information for presentation on web pages was another key criticism. The survey report recommends provision of a high-level web page summary, a pdf summary of, say 12 pages as well as the full pdf plan.
Reviewers were also looking for examples of councils that have gone beyond the corporate website and pdf documents to communicate the local plan online. Sadly, only 15% of sites were able to answer ‘yes’ to our question Are there any tools or apps or other assets (other than downloadable documents) on or linked from the main planning pages to engage local residents with the adopted plan or one in development? The report recommends a couple of examples of microsites devoted to the Local Plan.
Some councils were praised by reviewers, including:
- Colchester Council is praised for its excellent introductory information – clearly explaining the plan, what documents are included, and introducing the policies map.
- One reviewer remarked that they came across a really nice high-level explanation of the Local Plan key points (Lincoln City) – but that this was only in a press release.
- Epping Forest was singled out for providing a really nice overview with well written content, and good use of FAQs.
- Some microsites were found and two are recommended, one from Norwich and another Plymouth’s, serving three councils, South Hams, West Devon and Plymouth (the latter, as a unitary council not being in the survey cohort).
- Chelmsford was singled out for its excellent presentation of steps and timings (despite failing in other areas of the task).
The report and ‘all council’ results for Find out about Local Plan, along with further site recommendations, can be found on the Better Connected website.