Over the past 18 months, local authority planners have adapted swiftly and professionally to the new ways of working brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst this hasn’t always been plain sailing, the overall story is one of success, as planning authorities have proven to be resilient, adaptable and innovative in the face of this latest challenge.
The first hurdle was enabling planning officers to work from home effectively in the initial stages of the pandemic by providing them with the necessary equipment and support. Some councils achieved this faster than others, especially in some of the larger, rural authorities where home-working was already common practice for staff. The vast majority of local authority planning staff across Scotland are now well equipped to provide their services remotely, with some officers still based entirely at home and others adopting a blended model of home and office working.
As well as ensuring that day-to-day work could be carried out from home, planning authorities also had to consider how to fulfil their duties to the public whilst restrictions on in-person committee meetings, consultations, and site visits remained in place. This resulted in various innovative and creative solutions: in Aberdeenshire, a virtual ‘drop-in room’, designed to look like a public hall, was created to host Local Development Plan consultation sessions. This tool was developed in partnership with AECOM and was included as a best practice case study in the Scottish Government’s Digital Planning Strategy. The council was also a finalist in two categories at the RTPI Awards for Delivering Digital Engagement During a Pandemic.
In the Cairngorms National Park, a map created for Minecraft was used as an interactive tool to engage young people – members of the Cairngorms Youth Action Team were ‘dropped’ into the Minecraft environment and asked to collaboratively create a community that represented the sort of place they would like to live in. A number of authorities also began using video footage, in some cases captured by drones, to carry out virtual site visits.
Development management planning in Scotland has continued to show great flexibility in approaches during the pandemic – in the early stages, this allowed active travel initiatives such as the Spaces for People programme to be rolled out quickly and effectively. Pedestrians and cyclists were able to make the best use of their local areas for exercise and essential travel when other options were severely restricted, and it is encouraging that much of this temporary infrastructure is now set to be retained for the long term thanks to public support in various local areas. Later on in the pandemic, when hospitality venues began to reopen, the temporary cessation of enforcement activities allowed businesses to be innovative in expanding outdoor seating areas or takeaway services, for example, which has in turn helped local economies to recover and thrive during 2021.
One of the key themes of planning’s response to COVID-19 has been the rapid digitalisation of services. Some examples have been noted above, but other instances of digital transformation include South Lanarkshire’s development of a GIS app for housing and industrial land supply. The app uses ArcGIS to create a searchable, map-based interface so that users can locate and identify residential and industrial land opportunities and access data on site size, site type and development potential. Previously this data had been supplied as excel spreadsheets and PDF maps. Moreover, Glasgow City Council have developed one of the first local authority digital dashboards, which other councils are now looking to replicate.
These recent advances brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic present an opportunity for Scottish Government and local authorities to work collaboratively towards a future in which digital planning is at the forefront of responses to societal challenges. The pandemic will eventually be resigned to history, but pressing issues like climate change, the housing crisis, and long-term population health will continue to test the resilience of the planning system for many years to come. Lessons learned during this time must be harnessed in order that this opportunity for positive change is not lost.
In order to take up this opportunity, local authority planners will need appropriate resourcing, access to systems, and training to help them work more effectively. It is envisioned that NPF4 will place a greater digital requirement on local authorities, yet it remains unclear what funding will be available to support this approach locally. Though the majority of local authorities have upgraded their systems during the pandemic, there is still a need to improve access to basic provisions such as high-speed broadband and the essential hardware and software needed for digital planning. In addition, planners will need to be upskilled in GIS and data management. It is heartening to see more accredited degree courses providing this education to new planners, but existing planners will also need access to continued training if they are to adapt to a digital transformation. With the expected requirement of 700 new planners over the next 15 years, it is also vital that alternatives routes into the planning system are widened, whether that be through apprenticeships or incentives for those with transferrable skills from other sectors to retrain as planners.
Overall, planning has made great strides over the past 18 months towards a more resilient, digital-focussed future. This forward outlook needs to be maintained so that planning can strive to provide a streamlined, end-to-end service for customers and give greater access to information that can improve understanding of the system. Planning does not work alone in improving the lives of the people of Scotland; a cross-systems approach to data sharing and digital transformation will be vital in order to develop policy ideas, monitor outcomes, and to make the most of this unique opportunity for progress.