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Perspectives on the programme

As part of programme launch we asked a number of colleagues and stakeholders to provide their thoughts on Scotland's Digital Strategy for Planning and future work plans. A number of articles and videos were produced which can view here.

New additions will be added in the months following programme launch.

The role of digital planning in Scotland's future

Kevin Stewart MSP, Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning

​Following publication of Scotland's Digital Strategy for Planning in November 2020, the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning officially launched the digital transformation programme in March 2021 with his reflections on the role digital planning can play in Scotland's future

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Ready, steady, transform – the digital transformation of planning begins

Martyn Milne, Programme Manager for the Digital Transformation of Planning

Now it’s the exciting bit. After all the work that has gone into understanding the breadth and complexity of the issues we face, and the scale of opportunity that transforming planning will bring… after all the time, energy and focus that has gone into producing a Strategy that articulates our approach… now the transformation begins.

Speaking with some of the people involved in shaping this programme of work, we see a real appetite and ambition. Appetite for moving into the delivery phase to see the foundations of transformation being laid, and ambition for game-changing innovation that will really make a difference.

To harness that appetite and ambition requires a team and a decision-making framework that can define, control and measure what success looks like. The process of resourcing a team with the skills and experience needed to support delivery has begun. Governance arrangements are also currently being put in place to give partners and colleagues from across the planning system confidence that the right thing is being delivered – in the right way.

That being said, this is not a traditional programme. To be truly transformational, we need to get things wrong – and the sooner the better.

“Really?” You might ask.

Yes. We often hear the mantra ‘Fail fast, fail often’ in relation to agile, rather than traditional, project delivery. The real aim of working in an agile way, aligned with the Scottish Approach to Service Design, is not to fail, it’s to be iterative. Not to keep making mistakes and moving onto the next thing, instead – to allow room for failure. A culture where creative thinking and experimentation are encouraged rather than stifled. Like Edison who “failed” hundreds or thousands of times before successfully inventing the light bulb.

We will not be going into a darkened room until that light bulb moment. As outlined by the Ministerial Foreword of the Strategy, ‘a transformation this ambitious will require collaboration across the planning sector and beyond to shape and implement new systems and ways of working.’

In other words, we can’t and won’t do this on our own. Already, partnerships are being established to collaborate across private, public and academic sectors – with plenty more opportunities ahead. Working together we can solve planning and place related technology challenges, improve public service delivery and create prospects for economic development.

The results for everyone – citizens, communities, business and industry, central and local government and public sector bodies – will demonstrate the real benefits that digital transformation will bring as we adapt to new innovation and changing priorities for the planning sector.

How will we know if we’re getting it right?

As new planning services and capabilities are developed, a benefits realisation process will actively monitor the effectiveness of change. As people learn to use new technology and integrate digital planning services into their business processes, benefits will increase over time. This process will extend beyond the life of individual projects and continue to inform the business case and shape the programme plan.

Governance arrangements will ensure that delivered benefits align with strategic objectives and through continued collaboration with the wider planning community – we will maintain that focus of delivering the right thing, in the right way.

As we begin the process of transformation together we look forward to developing open and transparent ways of working to keep people as aware and involved as possible. A drumbeat of communication and engagement activity will keep progress visible and help ensure the programme stays aligned with other digital transformation incentives. Keep an eye on the transformingplanning.scot website, our social media and upcoming online events, for regular updates and opportunities to get involved.

We are looking forward to working with you – to transform places together.

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Comments from Planning Aid for Scotland (PAS)

Petra Biberbach, Chief Executive, PAS

Our experience of the pandemic and the experiences of many communities and groups that we work with has highlighted the absolute importance of getting the digital strategy for planning right.

Now more than ever, our ability to communicate and participate in decision-making is reliant on us having access to a good internet connection, access to devices and tools, as well as developing the knowledge, skills and confidence to participate in a digital world. It is also an opportunity to engage more efficiently and with decreased impact on the environment.

We really welcome the emphasis on inclusive engagement in digital strategy for planning, and the commitment to ensuring that all communities have the support to participate digitally.

The strategy has enormous potential to positively transform how our communities participate in community life, particularly in supporting local placemaking and decision-making.

Our ambition for the strategy is to see more people, of all ages, abilities, and communities, be more able to influence decision-making about the places where they live, work and play.

Each of the five missions outlined in the strategy has an important role to play in delivering a more digital placemaking experience.

We are excited to see a focus on using digital tools to drive collaboration and more inclusive and representative engagement. We particularly look forward to seeing The Future Fox PlaceBuilder tool and digital places toolkit in action. These have the potential to transform how communities engage in planning and support the roll out of Local Place Plans.

The pandemic has made us rapidly advance our digital skills as an organisation. In many ways this has helped us to identify how we can help more people through digital means than purely face-to-face working. We are now in the early stages of developing a digital training platform that we plan to make available to all communities across Scotland, in the spirit of Scotland’s digital planning strategy.

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Partnership in action

A conversation between Craig Mclaren, RTPI and Diane Rennie, Programme Director who discuss the digital planning programme, and the benefits of working collaboratively to transform planning

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Bringing planning into the 21st century

Alastair Parvin, CEO, Open Systems Lab

The planning system is one of the foundations of everyday democracy. At its core is a simple, popular premise: that since development will shape our neighbourhoods, our cities and our environment for decades to come, it should be guided and coordinated by the common, long-term interest.

And yet, today, there is more or less universal consensus that the planning system we have isn’t good enough. It is slow, costly, inconsistent and opaque, especially for small businesses and non-professionals.

This often leads to calls to ‘cut red tape’. But in truth, most of the problems of the planning system today lie not so much in the what of planning, but the how. The tools and systems we use to do it.

The planning system was designed long before we could even conceive of personal computers or the world wide web. Its original operating system was paper: piles of long,  esoteric documents and drawings, each of which has to be laboriously written and read by experts. A world where a huge portion of planners’ time has to be spent simply on the procedural work of processing applications.  

Although today we may have switched paper files for PDFs, the fundamentals haven’t really changed much.

The web gives us the opportunity to change that. In almost every other aspect of our lives, whether we’re buying insurance or planning a journey, we have become accustomed to simple online services, powered by data. So it looks increasingly odd that our democratic institutions have been left behind; especially planning.

What’s impressive about the digital planning strategy for Scotland is that it is not trying to bolt shiny new technology onto the same legacy system. It is a serious plan to structurally improve the way planning works, for everyone. It recognises that a digital planning system is not a thing you can buy, or even finish, and it is not something that will happen overnight. It points towards an evolving ecosystem of services, teams, open data registers and shared digital infrastructure, all connected together.

Its success will hinge on three key things.  

First, setting a clear framework of rules-of-engagement for digital services and infrastructure, built on principles of transparency, accessibility, auditability and data interoperability, so good quality data is available to everyone who needs it. 

Second, starting small; building the first parts of the system, listening to users, working with pioneers, then using what’s learnt to slowly improve other layers of the system. 

And third, seeing this not as a challenge of building software, but of building capacity. Inviting every planner, every developer and every community to be part of a 21st century planning system that is digital, democratic and focused on places, not paperwork.

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Beginning the transformation

Case studies and an overview of the programme from colleagues and stakeholders, reflecting on work to date and what happens next

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Great expectations

Dave Hall, Deputy Head of Digital Planning

What if we could elect to receive regular texts that keep us up to date as our planning application progresses, and perhaps even opt out from receiving planning progress letters altogether?

What if we simplified how payments are made and adjusted, making it easier for applicants, and allowing planning authorities to reconcile payments received more efficiently?

These might seem like big questions and yet they are just two of the areas we will take on as part of the digital transformation of planning, and we’re aiming to do this at an early stage in the programme.

The digital transformation of Scotland’s planning system offers an exciting combination of rare firsts.

It’s not often one gets the chance to work on something that aspires to be truly transformational, a digital ‘greenfield’, with the potential to have a reach and impact far beyond the world you might traditionally think of as ‘planning’, from Scotland’s economy to the wellbeing and safety of individual communities.

It’s also rare, perhaps unique, to see such a high degree of multi-organisation collaboration in one programme. We’ll be working with 34 planning authorities, numerous teams within government and a range of public agencies and planning partners.

We are focused on working with users to design and build new services that meet their needs and expectations. We’ve spent, a great deal of time finding out about people’s experience of planning and are in a great place to start making change.

Making a start

The corner stone of our strategy is a digital planning system that helps to make better places. Realising this broad vision presents numerous exciting, and at times daunting, challenges, as we begin to move into the first phase of our programme – delivery.

So where to start? And what to tackle first? We have spent a lot of time identifying our priorities to balance our efforts between demonstrating visible improvement as soon as possible, with the important (longer term) work needed to build the foundations for a future planning system.

To get this balance right we have taken a slice through the whole planning system to focus on delivering a number of early ‘wins’, beginning the work on the ‘behind the scenes’ foundations and on designing new services for both planning applications (development management) and planning a future Scotland (development planning).

Foundations
• Setting up cloud environments and a new data platform. Invisible, although vital!
Bringing standards to the data owned and used by planning.

New services
• Creating a first version of a ‘Smart’ Application Service – meaning a service that uses data to simplify the application experience and treats applications as (machine readable) data, not documents
• Developing a digital platform for the draft National Planning Framework (NPF) 4, to show the evidence base and allow people to engage and get involved with the proposals

These actions are just the beginning of stepping into the brave new world of digitising the planning system for Scotland.

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A Q&A with: Christina Cox

Christina Cox - Service Manager for Planning and Building Standards, and the Chief Planning Officer for Stirling.

Q: Chris, tell us a little about yourself …

In my capacity as service manager I am focused on resource management, with service planning and providing efficiencies in the interest of the public pound. As chief planning officer, I'm concerned with ensuring good planning outcomes, and for delivering an integrated planning service.

I've worked in planning for 32 years, at regional and local levels, and in that time I've seen huge steps being taken in the deployment of technology - from no PCs or digitally enabled tools at all through to GIS, then e-planning projects in the late 2000s and now the prospect of a fully digital planning service. This is an exciting time.

Q: What part do you think the digital transformation of planning will play in helping realise the wider policy objectives of both the Planning Act and the National Planning Framework?
Scottish Government's Planning Division have always been very clear that the Planning Act involves a whole range of new opportunities and new duties; and that to enable the best delivery of the new act, digital planning will be an essential tool for local authorities to engage in these requirements without placing additional strain on the councils.

The digital planning strategy brings about opportunities for efficiency through things like automated processing and machine learning; doing away with a lot of time consuming and mundane back office work to prepare plans and determine planning applications. Getting this time back affords us the opportunity to reinvest in services that deliver much better, proactive customer care, that provides improved planning outcomes.

Planning is front and centre of better and good quality place making, which has never been more relevant than now. To deliver that, we also need to work with others and the digital planning areas will enhance that collaboration enabling more efficient processing, planners to do a better job, a much more informed system, our plans and our policies to be more relevant and better able to deliver the outcomes that are in the National Planning Framework.

Q: What are the main opportunities you see from transforming planning in practice?

The main opportunity I see from the transformation is about making efficiencies.

Digital planning will give us a much more up to date evidence base to inform preparation of our plans. Our policies will also, critically, give the opportunity to communities to better prepare their own local place plans, an important part of the Planning Act, thereby genuinely empowering them.

There's quite a lot of inconsistency between the 34 authorities, and those inconsistencies aren't about better decisions, it's just that different places have got different practices in place. Transforming planning brings lots of opportunities for more consistent practice across Scotland.

Consistencies that can be applied nationally will be beneficial to us in local government, and also, I think, very beneficial to the array of local architects we work with; the vast majority of whom don't work across other planning authorities, and the automated tools, the consistency of practice is something I think they will greatly benefit from.

The transformation will enable us to provide much more proactive, good customer service by taking away a lot of the routine processing. Perhaps surprisingly, a number of inquiries that take up a lot of time are just inquiries about, "Where is my planning application? Where is this planning application in the process?" and digital planning will enable more notifications and real time information, taking away the vast majority of those questions.

Q: Planning is a spatial service. How will digital planning help at a local level to use data in a more proactive way to inform decision making?

Place making and place planning is front and centre of Scottish Government and local government policy. Planning has always occupied that territory. It is a spatial discipline. It's about delivering local outcomes in a spatial way, and has always been defined by spatial information.

I mentioned earlier that I'd been in planning for 32 years. Initially we used to have overlays that gave spatial information of where there could be environmental constraints, latterly, we moved onto tools like GIS.

GIS is a really important and enabling part of the work we do however, it's static information and the diagnostic part of it is a niche area within the planning office. It's never really become mainstream as a way of analysing and informing policy going forward in a way that new digital technologies like GPS technology, real time information might.

Although there've been a lot of technology leaps in the last 10 years through mobile phones and being able to ‘see’ with GPS data - for example where there’s a queue developing on your journey home - the planning profession hasn’t really kept up to date with these technological capabilities. Digital planning really will harness that technology and provide us, make us, an even more specially spatial profession.

Q: Can you tell us which groups you think will be most positively impacted by the transformation?

The transformation's going to positively impact everybody who is interested or involved in planning. Probably it'll be most beneficial to groups currently least engaged with the current planning system, those who are most removed from being able to understand the planning information we publish.

By making our planning information more easily understood, I think that communities will better engage with us. It will build trust with what they sometimes don't understand around the outcomes we deliver, through seeing how decisions are arrived at and feeling part of the process.

Digital remote platforms, as one example, will allow inputs and connections from wide geographical areas without the need to travel to be part of a conversation so this really benefits everybody in the system in rural areas, urban areas and communities that really do try to understand planning and don't always have the tools or all the information they need to engage better.

Q: What do you think the digital transformation of the planning system in Scotland will mean for your role in the future?

In short, across both my roles – as service manager and chief planning officer - I am sure this digital transformation will make my job easier.

As a service manager, I can see great opportunities to make efficiencies and to be able to redirect those efficiencies into the service so that we're creating added value in the work that we do. Taking away a lot of the routine and mundane work that planners are involved in. By removing more process orientated work, I hope that we'll revitalize, focusing on the elements of planning we love, at brought us into the profession in the first place.

In terms of my role as chief planner, the evidence base that we'll have with data driven decision making, and plans that have more inclusive and wider community involvement, I hope will drive better planning outcomes.

Q: Will the delivery of the strategy help attract young planners into the planning profession? And if so, how?

I've been speaking with young planners in my team about the transformation and what their hopes are, reflecting on what encouraged them to get into planning as a career and whether they think this will help promote planning as a career choice.

The answers and the discussion points I thought were really quite revealing. They weren't so enthusiastic about having the latest kit or gizmos to work with, they were really vocal about planning being more visible, validating their role in providing a better society, a better planet. And that's really what they see as the key benefits that will come from the transformation.

They also reflected on some of the practicalities that a lot of their work is taken up with and the fact that technology can be used to deal with those kind of things, like automated alerts and notifications. One of the planners actually mentioned that it provides an opportunity to do away with a bit of the stigma of planning being a bureaucratic process, that planners are just pen pushers. The digital transformation provides an opportunity to connect with work that their friends are doing, dealing with climate change and other areas of promoting the economy that are linked to planning, but not planning. So I was really impressed with what they had to say.

I have no doubt that the transformation will make planning a more attractive career. Planners know the impact they can make on very important challenges like climate change, the economy and wellbeing. We know that, and sometimes that message is not understood or is not easily understood by communities, by society.

The transformation will enable young planners to convey the positive contribution they make to dealing with these major challenges, validating what planners know about the good we do, and make planning a more attractive career for young people to consider coming into.

Q: And finally, now all this great stuff's about to happen across the next five years, what are your hopes for the future?

After over 30years I’m still in planning for the reasons I came into planning – to make local and national communities and environments better. For me it’s all about sustainability, development and better place making.

My hope for the transformation is that it enables us to continue to do that, involving others in the process that maybe don't realise the contribution they can make to the bigger picture; enabling communities to value planning, and value what they can bring when they are involved in planning.

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Last Updated: 21 May 2021