Making the planning system more customer-friendly

By Donna Gardiner

Local authority planning departments are more often associated with bureaucracy than with delivering good quality customer service.

However, as the current reform of the planning system in Scotland puts the need to develop a modern, efficient service in the spotlight, thoughts have turned to how planning authorities can focus on the human side of delivering a good quality planning service.

Last month (August 2018), the Scottish Government published a report on customer service in the planning system.  It examined different approaches to customer service across a range of private and public sector organisations in Scotland, with a view to identifying the lessons from these that could be applied to the planning system. Although focused on Scotland, the lessons are transferable elsewhere.

A number of challenges

The research found that while planning authorities in Scotland viewed high quality customer service as highly important, they faced a number of challenges to delivering this in practice.

Limited staff and financial resources are a key constraint affecting planning authorities’ ability to deliver high quality customer service.  For example, customer expectations of the frequency and responsiveness of communication are often higher than what can reasonably be delivered.

There are also issues of inconsistency of service, both within and between local authorities in Scotland.  This is due in part to different interpretations of specific legislation, as well as different levels of investment in, and commitment to, customer service within individual planning authorities.

The risk of individuals confounding ‘customer service’ and ‘outcomes’ – where the planning decision reached affects the individual’s perception of the quality of service they have received – is another key challenge when measuring the customer experience.

Current approaches

Each year, planning authorities in Scotland must prepare an annual Planning Performance Framework (PPF) report, which details their performance over the previous year.

At present, the PPF has no specific measure of customer service delivery.  Instead, planning authorities must submit a ‘narrative commentary’ of their customer service performance, along with relevant case studies that demonstrate their actions.

This means that individual planning authorities decide how best to gather information about their own customer service performance.  Some of the key methods used include:

  • Customer charters – which communicate customer service commitments to customers and employees
  • Customer satisfaction surveys – mainly online, however, some were still postal
  • Forums – the use of customer forums or focus groups to engage with customers
  • Complaint handling procedures – published details of organisational systems, protocols and SLAs for registering and responding to complaints
  • Customer service standard accreditation – g. Customer Service Excellence (CSE), Investors in People (IiP), ISO9001, Customer Satisfaction Measurement Tool (CSMT) etc.

So what can be done? The benefits of e-planning

The report identified a number of ways in which customer service within the planning system could be improved.

First was the need to achieve a greater consistency of processes, enforcement and quality of service across Scotland.  Clearer national guidance on implementing legislation would go some way to achieve this. Establishing a national survey of customer service in the planning system is also a priority. Lessons could be learned from the building standards system, which currently incorporates a Key Performance Outcome relating to improving the customer experience.

Planning authorities also overwhelmingly believed that e-planning had improved customer service.  The benefits included:

  • more efficient information flows
  • better prioritisation of work
  • reduced printing costs
  • greater transparency
  • easier access to information by the public

What is clear is that the move to e-planning is bringing a ‘culture change’. By speeding up the planning process and making more efficient use of resources, e-planning frees up both time and money to be spent elsewhere in the planning process.  As one planning authority notes:

“It’s about how you work with the customer to bring them on the e-planning journey with you and change their mindset. In the long run the customer benefits because it speeds up the service.”

As technology and customer expectations evolve it will be important that e-planning solutions reflect this in the future.

Future directions

Good quality customer service helps to make the planning system easier to understand and processes more accessible and usable.  This in turn opens up the system to those who might otherwise feel that it is too complex or time consuming to participate.  This may be of particular importance when encouraging young people to become involved in consultations.

Improving customer service within the planning system is not something that is just ‘nice to have’. Planning has changed significantly over the years – and with change comes the need for reliable, cost-effective processes to drive end-to-end efficiency.


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Planning for the digital economy

The digital tech sector is the UK’s fastest growing sector.    Recent statistics show that it is growing as much as 50% faster than the wider economy.  In London alone, a new tech business starts up every hour.  Beyond London, digital tech clusters across the country are driving the economic resurgence of many cities and city regions.

The rapid growth of the sector means that its spatial footprint has become increasingly evident in towns and cities across the UK.  In May, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) published guidance on how town planning can respond to and guide the future development of the digital economy.  It makes recommendations for planners in two areas:

  • how to encourage the growth of the tech sector in their local area; and
  • how to make best use of the opportunities provided by the tech sector for the planning system

What is the tech sector?

The digital tech sector is increasingly diverse, and there is no straightforward definition.  The 2016 Tech Nation report identified 16 different sectors, some of which include:

There are currently around 58,000 active digital tech businesses in the UK.  It employs 1.64 million people, and job growth is more than double that of other sectors.  Roles are generally highly skilled and well paid, compared to other sectors.  Indeed, the average salary is 44% higher than the national average!

Location preferences

Digital tech, as a sector, thrives off well-planned spaces with access to good local infrastructure.  Tech firms and their employees tend to prefer easily accessible, walkable, multi-use districts. This results in the creation of ‘clusters’ of similar firms in central urban locations.

Clustering has a number of advantages for digital tech businesses – including easy access to large talent pools and the ability to network and exchange ideas face-to-face with local, likeminded businesses and employees – a key driver of innovation.

London, Manchester and the Greater South East have some of the largest digital tech clusters in the UK; however, the Tech Nation 2017 report mapped 30 significant clusters across the length and breadth of the UK – from Dundee to Exeter.

Facilitating the growth of the sector

The recent growth of the sector has already led to a number of economic policy responses, including the development of enterprise zones, innovation and business centres, and ‘innovation districts’.  The RTPI guidance also highlights a number of smaller-scale responses that can be utilised to attract and foster tech industry growth, including:

  • ‘de-risking sites’ by making sure that planning requirements are “practical, clear and known in advance of specific proposals coming forward
  • using public money for assembling and servicing sites that are more challenging
  • the provision of Wi-Fi in specific locations
  • making districts pedestrian and cycling friendly
  • leveraging Public Private Partnership models to build digital infrastructure

In addition to these responses, the RTPI makes three recommendations for planners on how they can create an environment that is attractive to digital tech firms.

First, it suggests that planners should monitor the local economy to get a sense of what local growth industries are.  Policies can then be adapted to local economic conditions.  Some local authorities already do this using company registration data.  For example, Camden Borough Council use this data to inform a quarterly ‘Business and Employment Briefing’.  It covers a range of measures, including business size and type, employment in the borough, commercial property, unemployment, worklessness and qualifications.

In order to attract and assist the growth of the digital tech sector, it is important for local planning teams to have a proper understanding of the sectors’ spatial preferences.  This is particularly important when drawing up local plans.  Therefore, the second recommendation made by the RTPI is that local authorities should employ someone to engage with local tech firms to find out how planning could help to better facilitate their growth. The roles of The Dublin Commissioner for Startups and the Amsterdam Chief Technology Officer are potentially interesting models for this.

Third, the RTPI recommends ensuring that there is sufficient housing, office space and transport infrastructure to meet capacity.  These three elements are the “fundamental ingredients for an economically and socially successful city”.  Without them, no amount of other interventions will attract firms to an area.

The Tech Nation 2017 report found that 30% of digital tech community members cited their local transport infrastructure as a ‘business challenge’.  Tech London Advocates report similar concerns, whilst also highlighting the challenges posed by digital infrastructure: “It has become increasingly clear that a fundamental challenge facing tech companies in London is infrastructure. The tech sector has grown so fast that the provision of office space and digital connectivity is having to play catch up”.

The digitisation of planning

The growth of the digital tech sector not only creates jobs and generates wealth; it creates opportunities for improved efficiency in other sectors too.  In planning, digitisation can free up time and resources, and create new tools for planners to utilise.  From the adoption of  geographic information system (GIS) software for mapping, to experimental trials of 3D modelling software and virtual reality in plan making and community engagement, technology has and continues to present a number of opportunities to improve the planning system.

Beyond planning, innovations in the digital tech sector aid the creation of ‘smart cities’ – where information and communication technology (ICT) and ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) technologies are integrated to manage cities’ assets, with the overall aim of improving efficiency.  Examples of potential usage vary considerably, from supporting people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, to the provision of real-time traffic data, controlling streetlights and monitoring environmental data.

As such, a final recommendation made by the RTPI is to make use of local firms’ skills and resources to address cities’ infrastructural challenges.

Addressing inequality

Despite the rapid growth of the digital tech sector and its contribution to job and wealth creation, there is an increasing recognition that the benefits created by the sector can be insular and often do not spill over to the local economy.

Indeed, studies have found that the higher the share of tech employment in a city, the more income inequality there is.  On this basis, the digital tech sector has been criticised for its potential to create a ‘two-tier economy’.  There are also concerns about the gentrifying effects of digital tech clusters on local areas.  In London, for example, tech growth has increased the cost of living in some parts of the city, displacing smaller firms and lower income families.  It also poses a potential threat to innovation as startups are priced out of successful digital tech clusters.

Clearly addressing these issues poses some significant challenges for policymakers.  Last year, the RTPI made a number of recommendations in this regard, including helping local people to develop the skills needed by local tech companies.

Successful planning

The digital tech sector has enormous potential to enhance economic growth.  Through its ability to create the optimal conditions for the digital tech sector to thrive, planning can help to encourage this growth.  Understanding local economic trends, consulting with digital tech businesses about their needs, and ensuring that local infrastructure has the capacity to meet these needs, are vital to successful planning for the digital tech sector.  At the same time, ensuring that this growth is sustainable and benefits wider society are key challenges for planners.