According to GOV.UK, it is the Government’s aim ‘for every area in England to have an adopted local plan. A local plan sets out local planning policies and identifies how land is used, determining what will be built where.’ It goes on to say that the views of local people are ‘vital in shaping a local plan, helping determine how their community develops.’ There is a mandatory consultation process around local plans but as with other local planning issues these tend to engage professionals and small numbers of people whose property or other interests may be directly affected. Our survey aimed to assess how well councils are taking the opportunity to engage all residents with the future of where they live. Are local plans being promoted, and is information about them being presented in ways that are accessible to the general public as well as planning and development professionals?
February and March 2018
English and Northern Ireland district councils
Although nearly 40% of our cohort of district councils got sufficient marks to be designated ‘good’ and nearly 10% ‘very good’ for the task ‘find out about local plan’, reviewers’ comments suggest that councils need to do considerably more to communicate their Local Plans. Generally, they were frustrated by councils that presented 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 simply presented on web pages, leaving the impression that planning departments regard the communications task as done simply by uploading huge pdf documents or linking 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. For the completely uninitiated, sites were often lacking in simple explanations of what a ‘Local Plan’ is and what it is for.
Check ‘coverage’ to see if your council has been surveyed. Go to councils page and select your council. Look for link to task report under 2017-18 results
Provide a good or very good online service based on this survey
Better connected rankings
*Discrepancies in the figures are due to rounding off
There is a lot of talk about the role of local authorities in ‘place shaping’ and the process of developing a Local Plan, and then promoting it, would seem to be central to that activity. We therefore wanted to discover how ‘the Local Plan’ is being promoted, how information about local plans is being presented, and how accessible this information is to the general public.
The first test, as with all our surveys, was findability in Google, and the result was a 99% success rate. However, Google results sometimes take users straight to a page of quite technical content, by-passing any overview. Ensuring search for 'Local Plan' lands people on a page with high-level content, linked to the more detailed information, is important.
A quarter of councils surveyed failed our ‘essential question’ Is there a high level explanation of the role of the Local Plan (on a web page not pdf). Failing the essential question means that a council cannot score more than two stars for the task, which is designated a fail.
This may seem harsh, but with so many people now accessing council websites on mobile devices, key information must be easily accessible on web pages and not require site visitors to download pdfs. One authority was picked up for putting a one-page local plan timetable in a PDF rather publishing that content on the webpage.
High-level introductions to important topic areas like local plans count as key information, and need go further than bolting a couple of plain English paragraphs onto content written for planning professionals that is full of technical jargon and terms which not fully explained or contextualised.
Reviewers agreed that it was rare to find a useful breakdown of the key policies or areas of development that we were looking for in our question Is there a high level summary of the key points in the current or forthcoming local plan available on web pages within the planning/regeneration/development. According to our data, 30%, fewer than one third, did so.
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.
Mostly, site users are left to dive into pdfs of up to 250 pages (often with no warning about size) to try to extract the information they are most interested in. Little wonder that only 37% of sites were able to answer positively our question Can I find out easily which areas (if any) within the local authority footprint are designated for housing development?
The size and subject matter in the local plan pdf documents make for heavy reading so it is important that this is not all that is offered. Ideally a high-level web page summary, pdf summary of, say 12 pages and then the full pdf plan should be provided. Web pages and pdf summaries should be pitched at the non-expert public and written without unexplained technical terms. Even terms like 'spatial' should be avoided as they do not feature in everyday talk. Information should be presented in bite-sized chunks with visual elements to ensure readers stay engaged. Where pdfs are used, clickable content pages make them much more user-friendly.
Through our survey we were also looking for examples of councils that have looked beyond council website pages and pdf documents to communicate the local plan. 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?
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).
In terms of information about timescales, sites were pretty good, describing the history of the current or previous plans and detailing upcoming or current consultations, the two questions on status and timings scoring 81% and 88% respectively.
That said, many councils do not provide a full timetable, sometimes saying that the plan has been submitted to the inspector, but not detailing how long before they expect to hear from the inspector, make suitable adjustments if necessary and then adopt. Referring to the timetable in the planning jargon 'local development scheme' should be avoided.
Chelmsford was singled out for its excellent presentation of steps and timings (despite failing in other areas of the task).
The relationship between existing or adopted plans and new plans in development could be made clearer. If a plan has been adopted but then there is an emerging plan, it needs to be obvious from the adopted plan pages. Equally, the emerging plan content also needs to link back to the adopted plans.
By far the biggest challenge of this task was presentation of information on maps. Just over a third of sites (36%) were able to answer positively to our 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.
Reviewers were unanimous that most councils offered ‘simply terrible’ map options - either providing links to download huge and highly detailed PDFs, or 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.
Many maps featured a key with several dozen colours and patterns to distinguish the various types of development or policy. These were often extremely hard to tell apart - especially for someone with poor vision or colour-blindness. Some GIS maps exported to PDF required keys that had to be downloaded separately – a usability nightmare.
By contrast, many of the Local Plan PDFs contained useful maps and other visual data that could be repurposed within webpages. One reviewer noted that the Rossendale BC core strategy document has some ‘wonderful illustrations, diagrams and lots of visual elements that could be presented within webpages’.
More positively, our survey found that it was generally easy to find links from the Local Plan pages to neighbourhood planning (78% yes). However, the relevance of the Local Plan for neighbourhood planning was not generally explained, an omission that should be addressed.
A final thought prompted by our survey is whether the Local Plan is sufficiently promoted and cross-promoted from different sections of the council website. Our survey imagined the journey of someone who already knew that they are looking for the ‘local plan’ – hence our Google search term ‘XYZ Council local plan’.
What of website visitors unaware of local plans? The local plan should feature on planning landing pages certainly and one of our reviewers noted that: ‘most councils failed to really highlight this important information on other key planning pages alongside contextual information that might encourage visitors to look at it.’
We might also question in future surveys on this topic whether opportunities are being missed elsewhere on the council website to raise awareness of the local planning process? Given its importance in place-shaping, the Local Plan should perhaps be featured and highlighted on the home page, on the ‘your council’ pages, and then linked prominently with other corporate strategies and plans?
Reviewers did notice councils with the Local Plan highlighted on the home page, especially in those council areas which had current or upcoming consultations, but should Local Plans have more prominence generally, and be seen as a ‘whole council’ issue rather than a planning one?
Were there to be greater moves to communicate the Local Plan, then some attention would need to be paid to streamlining and explaining terminology. As indicated earlier, people may not know, that the overall process and timetable for the Local Plan is called the Local Development Scheme. Other terms like ‘saved policies’ may not be understood and simple explanations for non-professionals would be helpful.
It is significant that for this survey, our standard Better Connected survey question Was the content concise, in plain English and free of jargon? scored only 76% ‘yes’ compared with 89-94% for surveys about highways, social care, and waste and recycling.
Basingstoke & Deane
Excellent - clear information, nicely explained with minimal jargon. Clear links to supporting documents and very few assumptions made that the user knows what it all means.
I thought that the language used was generally plain and simple despite the complexity of the subject. It was really clear how to navigate to Neighbourhood Plans and the maps were easy to read. On the planning policy page there was a clear differential between the adopted plans and the emerging plans. I answered 'Y'' to Q11 even though you do have to expand the drop-down for Residential because the home page is designed around the search engine which works well.
I really liked the policy maps because although they were PDFs, they were small in size and very easy to understand. Navigation was consistent and generally easy. Some people may find it difficult to navigate from the home page but I was happy that 'Policies and Strategies' was clear enough. I thought the language used was relatively simple and straightforward. However, I didn't spot a high level summary of key points within the local plan. It might also be an idea to draw out key elements of the Local Development Scheme into a web page.
Very easy to navigate and to read - simple and straightforward language. For example, good explanation of the term 'allocations'.
Excellent user journey for this task and once at the dedicated LP website an extensive amount of information visually broken down in to easy to read byte size snippets using flowcharts, illustrations and interactive maps. Really well thought out pages. Very minor annoying pop up to join mailing list
Recommended for microsite – http://www.greaternorwichlocalplan.org.uk
The design and navigation really helps to find the information easily. Well written summarised areas of content help to break up the heavy subject area. The pages use a series of coloured drop downs with relevant titles which makes a nice feature within the page to break up content.
A very good example of finding information really easily, from good navigation, good service pages and all of these sections had FAQ areas and explained in a short summary about the local plan documents. Once in the section the documents lead to a consultation system which is subtly branded with the website so you do not feel as though you are navigating to a new site with links back to the main site and when in the consultation area you can view all the documents within the web and links to attachments are content and interactive maps not PDFs. Refreshing to see all information together and easy to scan.
Nicely designed main website which contains good information with reference links to a joint authority microsite https://plymswdevonplan.co.uk/policy with highly visual information with filtering by area search and policies broken down in to easy and well designed pieces of information.
Well designed service pages with relevant images, clear headers and relevant sub headings and well written content easy to use, navigation intuitive I also liked the outlined read more style boxes. Overall all the visual and functionality on the site made the journey so much easier. To improve interactive maps embedded within the webpages.