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.


For 30 years, Idox has been supporting the work of local government planning departments. iApply, a planning application submission portal launched by the Idox Group in 2015, offers local authorities the opportunity to benefit from an out-of-the-box end-to-end digital solution that makes submitting planning, building and licence applications simple for customers and cost effective for the authority.

Science in the city: applying neuroscience to urban design

Cities have long been considered primarily in terms of their buildings and infrastructure.  However, in recent years, a more ‘human-centric’ view has been adopted – focusing on the people who inhabit the city, and how they perceive and respond to the city that surrounds them.

Research from a variety of disciplines agree that buildings and cities have a significant impact upon the people – from their physical and mental health, cognitive development, and wellbeing to their levels of productivity.

Neuroscience offers a new way to further explore this impact – and by doing so, help urban design professionals to create places that promote human health and wellbeing, whilst mitigating the negative impacts of the city environment as far as possible.

 

What is neuroscience?

But what exactly is neuroscience?  And how does it relate to urban design?

A recent report by FutureCatapult looks at how neuroscience can be used to improve the design of urban places, and thus increase human wellbeing and productivity.

It defines neuroscience as “a multidisciplinary branch of biology and is the scientific study of the brain and nervous system, including its interaction with the other parts of the body”.

There are various ‘scales’ or ‘levels’ of neuroscience – from cognitive psychology, right down to the study of individual cells in the brain.  Each level of neuroscience studies different aspects of how the brain functions, and thus offers different ways to explore and understand how humans perceive, respond to and are affected by their surrounding environments.  It has many applications in real life – and one such application is informing city strategy, design and policy.

 

Applying neuroscience research to urban design

Take mental health, for example.  It is a prime example of an area in which neuroscience can be used by city planners and policymakers to help improve human wellbeing.

As FutureCatapult point out in their report, cities have a greater prevalence of mental health problems than rural areas.

They note that several factors associated with cities have been found to contribute to mental health problems. These include certain toxins (produced by traffic, industrial parks), environmental stressors (noise and light pollution), climate conditions (urban heat islands) and social conditions (isolation).  Neuroscience offers a greater understanding how these factors impact on human health and wellbeing, thus creating an evidence base for the design of healthy places.

There are many other ways in which neuroscience research can inform city design.  For example, it has been found that:

  • poor air quality has serious detrimental effects on the natural developments of children’s brains
  • social isolation can accelerate cognitive decline in older people
  • an increase in noise decreases worker productivity
  • light influences brain function during specific cognitive tasks, especially those requiring sustained attention

Such findings can help inform the decisions made by city planners and policymakers, and help create cities that maximise human health, wellbeing and productivity.

Research into the brain’s ‘wayfinding’ processes – that is, how the brain processes visual information and makes sense of unfamiliar environments – is also of interest.  For example, how do people choose which paths to follow?  Are they influenced by street size, shape, colours, noise, or the number of cars? Such information could be used to inform the design of streets and places that are easier to navigate. This is of growing importance given the drive towards the design of inclusive and dementia-friendly places.

Relatedly, neuroscience offers a way to gain a deeper understanding of how non-neurotypical brains process and respond to different environments – for example, people with dementia or autism.  Understanding these different perspectives and responses is key to the creation of spaces that are truly inclusive.

 

Neuroscience in action

But how exactly does one go about examining how brain cells respond to an urban environment?

There are a variety of neuroscience tools that may be used to gather information about human’s experience of the city.

A key tool is mobile electroencephalography (EEG).  Previously, EEG involved equipment that could only be used in a laboratory.  However, technological advances have seen the development of mobile EEG ‘headsets’ that can be worn as research participants navigate different streets and environments of the city.

Mobile EEG enables researchers to measure brain function and activity, as well as the responses of the autonomic nervous system (heart rate, skin conductivity, endocrinological levels).  This can be used to understand how individuals experience urban environments.

For example, mobile EEG has been used to help understand the urban experiences of people with visual impairments.  Other mobile EEG studies have looked at whether using quiet, low traffic streets has a different effect on pedestrians than using streets busy with shops, traffic and other pedestrians.

Eye tracking machines are another tool providing research findings of interest to urban designers.  They study gaze behaviours and cognition, which are in turn related to attention, memory, language, problem solving, and decision making.  Eye tracking can help researchers to understand which features catch and hold attention, visual preferences and experiences. For example, one eye-tracking study found (perhaps unsurprisingly) that humans prefer lush greenery in urban environments.

As these neurological research and related technologies advance, their application will undoubtedly become more sophisticated and widespread.

 

Building upon evidence

The urban population around the world is expanding rapidly and finding solutions to the mental and physical health challenges that cities present is crucial.

By understanding the insights that neuroscience can provide, city planners, policy makers and others involved in urban design can access a growing evidence base upon which to build future cities that are healthy, attractive and inclusive places to live.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. 

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Do planners dream of electric streets?

The last few years have seen a phenomenal growth in demand for electric vehicles in the UK.  Nearly 50,000 electric and plug in hybrid vehicles were registered between July and September 2017 a considerable achievement, when only 5 years ago it was less than 1,000.

Overall, there are now around 120,000 battery-powered cars on Britain’s roads, and this is expected to grow to 10m by 2035.  From the modest Nissan Leaf, to the futuristic Tesla, the choice of electric vehicles is expanding, and various car manufacturers have announced ambitious plans to develop even more electric vehicles to suit a range of tastes and budgets.

The benefits of moving to electric are clear – as well as lower emissions, they are also cheaper to run costing less than half as much than petrol-powered equivalents.

Out with the old

This means that a future where electric cars are the norm is now on the near horizon.  Indeed, the UK recently committed to banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, including hybrid vehicles, by 2040.  The Scottish government have set an even more ambitious target pledging that by 2032 all new vehicles sold in Scotland will be electric. Norway, India and France have also set similar goals.

At the local level, Oxford is set to become the first city centre to ban all non-electric vehicles with certain streets becoming electric-only by 2020, and the world’s first ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ) will come into operation in London next year.

Delivery of EV infrastructure through the planning system

As desirable as a low emission, electric-only city may be, the use of electric vehicles poses a number of challenges for town planning and urban design.

Ensuring that there is sufficient infrastructure in place to meet the increased demand for electric vehicle recharging will be a key issue. While there has been a significant growth in the number and geographic spread of EV connectors across the UK since 2011, many more will be required if predicted demand is to be met.

While motorway services and petrol stations will soon be required by law to install charge points for electric cars, simply replacing existing fuel pumps with EV chargers will not provide sufficient capacity, as at present, charging an electric car can take anywhere between 30 minutes to a couple of hours.  Additional charging stations will have to be incorporated into parking spots – either on the road, at home or in car parks.

The planning system is already taking some practical action to address this. Both planning policy and development management provide important delivery mechanisms.

At the national level, in England, the National Planning Policy Framework states that

developments should be located and designed where practical to… incorporate facilities for charging plug-in and other ultra-low emission vehicles”.

In Scotland, high level planning policy also recognises the importance of considering EV charging infrastructure in new developments, with supportive text included in both the Third National Planning Framework and the Scottish Planning Policy 2014. In addition, permitted development rights for off-road charge points came into force in 2014.

At the regional level, some policies require planning authorities to incorporate facilities for charging electric vehicles.  For example, The London Plan states:

developments in all parts of London must… ensure that 1 in 5 spaces provide an electrical charging point to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles”.

Several local authorities also use local plan policies to require electric vehicle provision, and others use their development control powers to require developers to provide electric vehicle charging points.

Some authorities have also taken opportunities to broker EV via non-planning routes, for example, the provision of public recharging point provision through grants.  One such example the On-Street Residential Chargepoint Scheme was set up in 2016, and provides up to 75% of the cost of procuring and installing chargepoints.

Challenges remain

While progress is being made, a number of challenges remain.

As well as increasing the overall number of available charging stations, planners will need to ensure that they are adequately distributed within a city so that there’s always one within reasonable driving range.  Specifying EV charging points on new developments runs the risk of a ‘scattergun’ approach, particularly where developments are concentrated in specific areas.  Local authorities would do well to adopt a strategic and planned approach to EV provision to ensure adequate coverage.  This will be particularly important in rural areas, as electric cars typically have a maximum range of around 150 miles. ’Range anxiety’ is an affliction suffered by many electric car drivers!

While various grants are available for electric car owners to install charging infrastructure at their homes, it is also not yet clear how home EV charging will work in densely populated areas without private parking, such as large blocks of flats. One potential solution may be the use of massive batteries kept in shipping container-style boxes, with up to 50 charging points attached.

The provision of on street EV charging facilities may present a design challenge in historic and/or conservation areas. In London, this has been dealt with by retrofitting existing street lamps with EV infrastructure, even including heritage lamps in Kensington and Chelsea.

There have also been concerns about the ability of the national grid to cope with millions of cars being plugged in to charge every evening.  Encouraging drivers to charge ‘smart’ at off-peak times may be the way forward.

Innovative solutions

Despite these challenges, there are promising signs of progress.  Some noteworthy examples include Elgin-based housebuilder Springfield Properties committing to installing cabling for electric car charging points in all new-build homes as standard, including its new 3,000-home development in Perth.  There are also plans to turn the A9 into an ‘electric highway’ and for a new ‘charging hub’ in the centre of Dundee – which will also be part-powered by the use of solar canopies.

EV technology is an area of fast-paced change and addressing the many challenges that it presents will require planners to adopt similarly innovative and forward-thinking solutions.  With advances being made on contactless under-road EV charging, it may not be long before electric streets charge our cars on the move.  We in the Information Service are excited to see what the future holds, and will be keeping abreast of the latest developments in both policy and practice.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

The kids are all right? Embedding children’s rights in town planning policy and practice

 

A survey undertaken by YoungScot to accompany the Scottish Government’s Places, People and Planning consultation concluded that the majority of young people felt that they should be involved in planning in their local area and that their local councils should look at ways to support children and young people to do this.

The current Scottish Planning Bill contains a number of provisions that aim to do just that – including enhancing the engagement of children and young people in shaping their local areas through the statutory development plans, and the requirement for planning authorities to use methods that will secure the engagement of children and young people.

The right to participate

This focus upon children’s participation in the planning system can be viewed as part of a wider move towards the greater acknowledgement of children’s rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The UNCRC sets out the fundamental rights of all children and young people across the world.  It states that the best interests of the child must be a top priority in all decisions and actions that affect children.  There are, therefore, many aspects that are directly relevant to the planning system.

Indeed, the right to participate in decision-making (Article 12); and the right to participate in play, rest, leisure and culture (Article 31) are particularly pertinent.  These include:

  • The right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities.
  • An environment secure from social harm and violence, and sufficiently free from pollution, traffic and other hazards that impede free and safe movement.
  • Space to play outdoors in diverse and challenging physical environments, with access to supportive adults, when necessary.
  • Opportunities to experience, interact with and play in natural environments and the animal world.
  • Opportunities to explore and understand the cultural and artistic heritage of their community, participate in, create and shape it.
  • Opportunities to participate with other children in games, sports and other recreational activities, supported, where necessary, by trained facilitators or coaches.

Child-friendly cities

Children’s rights are also at the heart of the Child Friendly Cities Initiative (CFCI):

A child friendly city is the embodiment of the Convention on the Rights of the Child at the local level, which in practice means that children’s rights are reflected in policies, laws, programmes and budgets. In a child friendly city, children are active agents; their voices and opinions are taken into consideration and influence decision making processes.”

Four key principles of the UNCRC are considered to be particularly pertinent to the CFCI initiative:

  • Non-discrimination – a child-friendly city is friendly and inclusive for all children
  • Best interests – putting children first in all decisions that affect them
  • Every child’s right to life and maximum development – providing the optimal conditions for childhood, including their physical, mental, spiritual, moral, psychological and social development
  • Listening to children and developing their views – promoting children’s active participation as citizens and rights-holders, ensuring their freedom of expression

Awareness and understanding of children’s rights among planners

However, in her research on children’s role within the town planning system, Dr Jenny Wood found that there was little acknowledgement or understanding of children’s rights under the UNCRC.  Indeed, planners commonly believed that the provision of schools, parks and designated play facilities were all that was required in order to meet children’s needs.

Dr Wood argues that if public spaces and the planning process are to become more inclusive, then planners need to develop a better understanding of children’s rights.  In a separate blog, she sets out five key steps to help embed children’s rights in the everyday work of planners and other practitioners:

  • specific children’s rights training for planners
  • government guidance on, and suggested methods for, engagement with children and young people
  • the creation of a robust and routine feedback mechanism between planners and child participants
  • encouraging networking, collaboration, and skills exchange between planners, play workers, and youth workers
  • the collation of an accessible evidence base on children, young people and their relationship to, and use of, the built environment

Future directions

There are some wider signs of progress – including the introduction of Children’s Rights and Well-Being Impact Assessments (CRWIA), which are now required for all new policy developments in Scotland, and new measures that require specific public authorities in Scotland, including all local authorities and health boards, to report every three years on how they have progressed children’s rights as set out in the UNCRC.

The current reform of the planning system offers an ideal opportunity to further advance children’s rights by encouraging and supporting local planning authorities to involve children and young people in planning as part of their everyday practice.


Feeling inspired?  Why not read our previous blog posts on involving children in the town planning process and the creation of child-friendly cities.   

Idox Information Service members can also download our briefing on Planning a child-friendly city via our customer website.

Involving children and young people in town planning

By 2050, it is estimated that nearly 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas.  In the UK, this figure is expected to be closer to 90%.   This demographic shift, along with population growth in general, means that more children than ever are growing up in urban environments.

This has a number of implications for the town planning system.  Creating a ‘child-friendly’ environment requires much more than just ensuring there are enough parks and play spaces.

As well as having a fundamental human right to participate in decisions that affect them, there are clear links between children’s health, wellbeing and development and the quality of their surrounding environment.  Particular areas of influence include:

  • housing quality
  • road safety
  • the walkability of an area
  • opportunities for cycling
  • play facilities
  • access to greenspace
  • local amenities such as libraries and community/leisure centres
  • environmental pollution
  • community safety/fear of crime
  • access to healthy food choices

One key way to address this is to involve children in the planning process. As well as helping to create safer, more suitable environments for children to grow up in, involving children in decisions about their local areas has a number of additional benefits.  It helps to build social capital, helps children to form a bond with their home city, and fosters a feeling that they can help to make a change in the world they live in. For planners, involving children can help to provide them with a new perspective on how children use their environments, and highlights issues that adults may not recognise or fully understand – potentially leading to improved design.

Participation methods

Research published in 2011 found that children’s voices had been “notably absent from UK planning and regeneration policies throughout the past two decades”. Children’s participation in planning tended to be focused on services that were designed ‘for them’ rather than ‘with them’, and little attention was given to children’s roles in the wider regeneration agenda.

However, there are some examples of successful involvement.  Methods that have been used successfully range from formal mechanisms such as youth councils, child-led surveys and data collection, to informal ones such as photography, computer-aided mapping, model building and role-play.  Dr Jenny Wood reports that she had success with a delightfully low-tech method, where children were asked to annotate A3 OS maps with a range of stickers, post-it notes and pens, to highlight their likes, dislikes, routes to school and any other information they felt was important about their local area.

At the other end of the scale, some particularly innovative examples capitalise on recent technological advances.  These include the use of mobile phone apps to make traffic reports (see Case Study 1 below), the use of Minecraft (see Case Study 2 below), mapping their local area (Children’s Tracks in Norway) and the use of the SoftGIS methodology in Finland.

Case Study: Traffic Agent, Norway

A new app-based initiative in Oslo, ‘Traffic Agent’, directly involves children in transport planning. It enables children to provide direct feedback on road safety, based on their own experiences.  The app makes use of ‘gamification’ whereby users act as “secret agents” for the city, sending immediate reports on their route to school when they come across, for example, a difficult crossing on the street or an area of heavy traffic.

The project lead, Vibeke Rørholt, illustrates its impact: “I received a telephone call from the mother of a little boy who had reported some bushes that meant he couldn’t see when he was crossing the street. And two days later the bushes were cut. She phoned in saying he’s so happy that he could make this happen.”

Case study: Blockbuilders, England

Blockbuilders is an innovative method of involving communities, and children and young people in particular, in the town planning system.

Using the hugely popular game, Minecraft, the Blockbuilders team create a 3D representation of a local area.  The model is then used as the basis for consultation with the wider community, and can be interacted with and played with to enable communities to help design and shape their local areas.  Projects have included the development of Lewes Neighbourhood Plan, the development of a family-friendly park by Brighton and Hove City Council, and an interactive map of Brighton and Hove.

Common success factors for children’s effective participation

There is no one definition of ‘good’ or ‘effective’ participation practice – the most suitable method depends on the age of participants and the nature of the decision that they are being involved in. However, in their review of children and young people’s participation, the Ecorys project identified a number of common ‘success factors’ for children’s effective participation in planning and regeneration. These include:

  • Official recognition of children’s fundamental rights
  • Partnership working, e.g. planners, local government, academics, NGOs, community organisations and residents
  • Involving adults with knowledge and experience of young people’s participation
  • Utilising a range of diverse participation mechanisms
  • Understanding participation as a ‘whole’ process of learning and change
  • Openness and reciprocal learning between children and adults
  • An incremental and realistic approach to goal setting and developing trust/confidence
  • Visibility in the results
  • Embedding at different levels and spatial scales

Challenges

Despite the compelling arguments in favour of children’s participation in the planning system, a number of barriers exist.

There is a general lack of awareness of the purpose, benefits or skills required for facilitating young participation among planners.  Children are often viewed as being incapable of engaging in a meaningful way, despite research concluding otherwise.

Children’s participation in planning is frequently still viewed as ‘special’, rather than as part of general community engagement processes.  It tends to be focused specifically on children’s services, rather than the wider range of universal services, and takes the form of consultation, rather than proper involvement in every phase of the decision making process.

A number of political and structural barriers also limit children’s potential influence – such as competing interests within the planning system and the short timescales often required for decisions.  This can mean that even when the intentions are there, planners themselves may have limited time or influence over the decision making process.

Future steps

However, these challenges are not insurmountable.  As we have seen, through its influence on the design of the urban environment, the town planning system has a huge impact upon the wellbeing and development of children.  By involving children in the design of their local environment, it can help create environments that support children to reach their fullest potential.

Children who are involved and interested in their local environment will hopefully grow up to become adults who are involved and interested in their local environment.  The town planning system is in a unique position to help facilitate this.  And as Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia has said:

If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people”.


Keen to make your city more child-friendly?  Next month we look at the characteristics of child-friendly urban design. 

If you can’t wait, why not download our briefing on Planning a child-friendly city – available to Idox Information Service members via our customer website.

Accelerated development: do Simplified Planning Zones work?

The Hillington Park SPZ has accelerated a number of developments, including a “motorbike village”.

by Donna Gardiner

A simplified planning zone (SPZ) is a designated area where the need to apply for planning permission for certain types of development is removed so long as the development complies with a range of pre-specified conditions.

Although the SPZ concept has been around since the 1970s, the idea has never really taken off, and there are very few SPZs in the UK.

However, in the last 12 months there have been some signs of renewed interest in the concept.  As part of the current review of the planning system, the Scottish Government has shown considerable enthusiasm for the potential of SPZs to address the housing crisis and support economic development.

In their most recent position statement, they state:

Zoning has potential to unlock significant areas for housing development, including by supporting alternative delivery models such as custom and self-build. This could also support wider objectives including business development and town centre renewal

Indeed, the Scottish Government recently committed £120,000 to help four local authorities develop pilot SPZs for housing development in Aberdeenshire, Argyll & Bute, Dumfries and Galloway, and North Ayrshire.

There are also plans underway for the creation of two new SPZs in Scotland.  In Aberdeenshire, councillors have agreed that planning officers should begin the statutory process for the creation of an SPZ for industrial and commercial activity in the south of Peterhead. The SPZ aims to strengthen the town’s position as a key strategic investment location, and complement work to regenerate the town centre.

At the other end of the country, in the Scottish Borders, a consultation has recently closed on the creation of an SPZ in Tweedbank – the new Central Borders Business Park.  The scheme aims to capitalise on the opportunities brought about by the Borders Railway, and is likely to receive additional funding as part of the recently agreed Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.

While there is enthusiasm for the Tweedbank SPZ, East Berwickshire councillor Jim Fullerton notes: “The question of the viability of this project has to be recorded. Enthusiasm is one thing, but evidence of it being viable is the key.”

Viability

So what is the evidence on the viability of SPZ’s?  In theory, SPZs can offer a number of benefits for both the developer and the planning authority, including:

  • removal of the ‘planning hurdle’ and associated fees
  • faster decision making and accelerated development
  • greater certainty for developers and stakeholders
  • simplified planning control
  • reduces the need for repetitive planning applications
  • saves time and costs both for organisations and the local planning authority
  • offers more flexibility than a masterplan
  • attracts investment
  • can help to promote the reuse of existing space

However, while there are equivalent mechanisms in other countries, there are currently only two other operational SPZs in Scotland – Hillington Industrial Estate and Renfrew High Street.  They are widely considered a success, with Scottish Planner concluding that:

Both projects are a good example of how planning professionals, working with commercial stakeholders, can cooperate successfully in finding new ways to encourage sustainable economic growth.

Case study: Glasgow City Council and Hillington

In 2014, the first SPZ in Scotland in 20 years – the Hillington Park SPZ – was established by a partnership between Glasgow City Council and Renfrewshire Council.

The award-winning SPZ allows the landowner to increase space at the site by around 85,000 square metres, as long as proposals conform to the conditions set out in the SPZ scheme.

The SPZ is valid for 10 years.  So far, it has triggered around 20,000 square metres of development and attracted around £20 million pounds of investment.  Not only has it helped to promote the reuse of existing space, such as the obsolete Rolls Royce plant, it claims to have given the area a commercial advantage in attracting inward investment.

Jamie Cumming, the director of Hillington Park, said: “Our SPZ status means that new developments like the ‘motorbike village’ with Ducati Glasgow, Triumph Glasgow and West Coast Harley-Davidson as well as Lookers plc’s new Volvo and Jaguar showrooms and our own Evolution Court manufacturing and logistics development can be accelerated with an anticipated build time of just 10 months.”

Case study: Renfrew Town Centre

Building on the success of the SPZ at Hillington, in 2015 Renfrewshire council created the Renfrew Town Centre SPZ Scotland’s first SPZ focusing on town centres.  Renfrew is a “small, but vibrant” town centre. The SPZ aims to support existing businesses, encourage new businesses, and increase the number of people living within the town centre by supporting the re-use of vacant property on upper floors.

The scheme has been hailed as an excellent example of the Town Centre First principle.

According to Scottish Planner: “The scheme has been well received and offers simplicity to businesses who can invest in the town centre knowing that they can change the use of premises and upgrade the shop front without having to apply for planning permission”.

Challenges

However, SPZs are not without their challenges.  These include the initial costs of establishing the SPZ, which can vary significantly depending on the size and complexity of the scheme.  There is also the need to ensure that the SPZ is ‘future-proofed’ – so that it is still relevant throughout the duration of its life (usually 10 years).  It is also important that those establishing an SPZ address the perception held by many that the relaxed planning rules associated with SPZs will result in poor design or compromise environmental impact.

Future directions

In addition to the pilot SPZs, the Scottish Government has commissioned Ryden (in association with Brodies) to undertake research to assess the potential for a more flexible and more widely applicable land use zoning mechanism than SPZs provide at present.  The research will inform the Government’s final proposals.

The research team at Idox will be following the revival of SPZs in Scotland with interest.

Managing growth in historic towns

canterbury cathedral

By Heather Cameron

Predominantly set within environmentally attractive surroundings, historic towns and cities have a strong sense of place, offer a good quality of life, are often prosperous and represent models of sustainable development.

Research shows that businesses based in older places are more productive than the average for all commercial businesses across the whole economy. Retail and leisure businesses often seek to cluster in historic areas of towns and cities, and historic buildings are particularly attractive to new business start-ups, especially in the creative and cultural sector. Well-maintained historic places also enhance cultural life and community resilience.

As a result, historic towns are much sought after places to live and work, which has contributed to unprecedented growth.

Growth pressures

While growth is seen as a good thing for the future of town centres, managing it effectively in these areas of historic importance is not without its challenges. Older townscapes and buildings are a valuable and irreplaceable community asset that need to be protected.

Growth in historic towns creates pressure for new housing and development, and the infrastructure that is needed alongside it. It can also lead to increased congestion and depletion of suburban quality through redevelopment and loss of garden space. The traditional infrastructure in these towns may not be able cope with the increased capacity resulting in demand for suitable adaptation.

Managing these growth pressures is a particular challenge for historic towns as they need to try and meet local development need while both conserving the identity and sense of place of the existing town and nurturing the creation of sustainable new communities within them.

The Historic Towns Forum has highlighted that “there are challenges of infrastructure, partnership working, working with major national developers, the tension between modernity and pastiche and how to learn from the past and the present when building at this scale.”

In addition, the main political priority across all areas is economic wellbeing, taking precedence over any heritage considerations. A report from Green Balance in 2014 found that this principle concern was interpreted differently from place to place, with some local councillors viewing heritage as beneficial to a town’s economic and social wellbeing, while others viewed it is a burden and drag on investment.

As the heritage of places can be a particular pull for tourism, not preserving them could lead to a loss in economic wellbeing. The importance of achieving the right balance between sustainable development and heritage conservation is a theme that has been consistently highlighted in the research.

Smarter growth

So how do such places manage growth while also safeguarding both the character of the towns themselves and the settings around them?

According to the Historic Towns Forum, key issues in effectively addressing growth pressures in historic towns include:

  • planning and process;
  • partnerships;
  • finance and economics;
  • climate change;
  • community benefits and community engagement;
  • design; and
  • learning from the past and present.

It has been argued that a strategic approach to growth needs to be taken, such as the approach taken in Cambridge, where the Cambridgeshire Quality Charter for Growth is being used to help steer the creation of high quality sustainable communities.

Partnerships involving a range of local stakeholders, encompassing a shared vision and cooperation are also important for effective growth. Where strategic resources are lacking, which is often the case in smaller towns, community engagement can be of particular importance, as shown in Cirencester.

Key principles of good design have been highlighted to include:

  • learning from the past, including study of appropriate models;
  • localising by understanding local conditions; and
  • transforming action by applying appropriate, robust advances.

The overarching message seems to be that ‘smarter growth’ is required.

Good practice

There are examples of good practice where historic towns are managing growth in a way that protects their heritage. Cambridge, as mentioned previously, is one example. Sutton is another, where the challenges of growth are being addressed through the use of a Heritage Action Zone. The aim here is to balance growth with the management of heritage assets, providing lessons for elsewhere.

It is also important to look further afield. The historic town of Amersfoort in the Netherlands has been presented as a good model for managing housing growth to achieve attractive new settlements and create balanced communities. It has been suggested that this smarter approach is something that historic towns in the UK can learn from.

Another good example is Freiburg in Germany. Although different in terms of development to Britain, some of the issues applicable to British towns and cities have been addressed – including how to attract families to live at higher densities close enough to city centres to avoid car dependency.

As Historic England states:

“Learning is central to sustaining the historic environment. It raises people’s awareness and understanding of their heritage, including the varied ways in which its values are perceived by different generations and communities. It encourages informed and active participation in caring for the historic environment.”


If you enjoyed this blog post, why not read are previous posts on the civic use of heritage assets and the value of preserving our built heritage.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Helping people with dementia to live well through good urban design

Earlier this year, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) published their first practice note on how good planning can play a stronger role in the creation of better environments for people living with dementia.

It summarises good practice guidance from Oxford Brookes University, the Alzheimer’s Society and the Scottish Government, among others.

Living with dementia

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, there are currently around 850,000 people living with some form of dementia in the UK.  Although the risk of developing dementia increases with age, it is not just a disease of the elderly.  There are currently around 40,000 people with dementia in the UK under the age of 65.

The vast majority of cases of dementia cannot be cured. However, there is a lot that can be done to enable someone with dementia to live well with the condition. Many people with dementia can continue lead active, healthy lives for years after diagnosis.  Even most elderly people with mild to moderate dementia can continue to live in their own homes.

The importance of good urban design

Evidence has shown that well-planned, enabling environments can have a substantial impact on the quality of life of someone living with dementia and their ability to retain their independence for longer.

For example, being within easy walking distance of shops and other local amenities can help people with dementia to remain physically active and encourages social interaction.

Having access to green space and nature also has particular benefits, including better mood, memory and communication and improved concentration.

Key characteristics of a dementia-friendly environment

Drawing on the principles set out in ‘Neighbourhoods for Life’, the RTPI advises that urban environments should be:

  • Familiar – functions of places and buildings made obvious, any changes are small scale and incremental;
  • Legible – a hierarchy of street types, which are short and fairly narrow. Clear signage;
  • Distinctive – including a variety of landmarks and a variety of practical features, e.g. trees and street furniture;
  • Accessible – access to amenities such as shops, doctor’s, post offices and banks within easy, safe and comfortable walking distances (5-10 minutes). Obvious, easy to use entrances that conform to disabled access regulations;
  • Comfortable – open space is well defined with public toilets, seating, shelter and good lighting. Background and traffic noise minimised through planting and fencing. Minimal street clutter;
  • Safe – wide, flat and non-slip footpaths, avoid creating dark shadows or bright glare.

Dementia-friendly communities

In addition to specific guidance on how to improve the urban environment, the RTPI practice note also highlights the crucial role of planners in the creation of ‘Dementia Friendly Communities’.

This is a recognition process, which publicly acknowledges communities for their work towards becoming dementia friendly.  It aims to involve the entire community, from local authorities and health boards to local shops, in the creation of communities that support the needs of people with dementia.

There are 10 key areas of focus.  Those particularly relevant to planning include:

  • shaping communities around the needs and aspirations of people with dementia;
  • the provision of accessible community activities;
  • supporting people to live in their own home for longer;
  • the provision of consistent and reliable transport options; and
  • ensuring the physical environment is accessible and easy to navigate.

There are currently over 200 communities across the UK working towards recognition as dementia-friendly.  Dementia Friendly East Lothian and the Dementia Friendly Kirriemuir Project are two such examples.

Local government policy

By 2025, it is estimated that the number of people diagnosed with dementia will rise to over one million.  Significant under diagnosis means that the number of people who experience dementia may be even higher.

However, the RTPI report that at present few local authorities have made explicit reference to dementia in their adopted local plans.

Worcestershire County Council and Plymouth City Council are notable exceptions:

  • Plymouth have set out their ambition to become a ‘dementia friendly city’ in its current local plan; and
  • Worcestershire are currently developing a draft Planning for Health Supplementary Planning Document that covers age-friendly environments and dementia.

A beneficial environment for all

While these are important first steps towards the greater recognition of the role of planning in supporting people with dementia, it is imperative that planning explicitly for dementia becomes the rule, rather than the exception.

Not only will this benefit people with dementia and reduce healthcare costs, it may also benefit the wider community, including young families, people with disabilities, and older people.

As the RTPI rightly state, “environments that are easy for people to access, understand, use and enjoy are beneficial to everyone, not just older people with dementia.”


Ensuring that growth and great places aren’t incompatible … reflections on the RTPI Convention

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The 2016 RTPI Convention earlier this week was attended by over 400 people keen to discuss how the profession and the planning system can support the delivery of growth. Being held just a few days after the UK’s Brexit vote, there was a predictable inevitability when every speaker prefaced their talk with the caveat ‘of course everything is uncertain now’. A consistent message across the day however was that regardless of the political uncertainty, the key challenges of demographic change, enhanced mobility and a national housing shortage still need to be addressed. And planning is central to producing long-term, strategic responses to these issues.

While Idox were at the conference exhibition in order to highlight the success of the i-Apply combined online planning and building control submissions service, our Knowledge Exchange team were at the convention itself.

Planning great places

Although there was plenty of discussion during the day about the ongoing impact of planning reform – especially the current review of the planning system in Scotland, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 and the role of the National Infrastructure Commission – the most inspiring sessions focused on practical examples of collaboration and inclusion in strategic planning.

Paul Barnard, Assistant Director for Strategic Planning & Infrastructure at Plymouth City Council described the key ingredients of aspirational plan making. The council has twice won the RTPI’s Silver Jubilee Cup for their pioneering approach, firstly in 2006 and then again last year for their Plan for Homes. This city-wide planning framework addresses issues including land release, infrastructure and delivery. Incredibly, the overarching Plymouth Plan replaced over 138 different strategies.

Paul explained that the challenge for the team was to develop credible policy responses to the social challenges facing the area, and then win over hearts and minds to support these solutions. The benefits of having one integrated strategy is that it sets a vision for ‘place’ that all departments can mobilise behind. Paul argued that the profession has to “believe in proactive, positive planning” and make the case for that every day in their work.

Delivering housing growth

Throughout the conference, the need to deliver more housing was a recurrent theme. A number of speakers argued that direct intervention in the housing market, for example through local housing companies or councils buying sites, was becoming a necessity. Toby Lloyd, Head of Policy at Shelter, pointed out that central government interventions have been focused on the consumer end of the market (for example, Starter Homes) rather than on delivering development sites and land.

Discussions during the day highlighted the current disconnect between where new housing is being delivered and where there are employment growth opportunities. Yolande Barnes, Head of Savills World Research, also suggested that we need to stop planning in terms of ‘housing units’ – people live in neighbourhoods and communities, and we shouldn’t forget this.

The question of how we capture land value, and use this to fund infrastructure development, was also raised repeatedly. In many situations, we have fragmented development delivered by different developers and the question of responsibility for wider public benefits is difficult. Planning tools such as the Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 have attempted to address this, but do not necessarily provide a timely or joined up approach to infrastructure delivery.

What if cities could change our world?

While recognising the challenges facing the profession, there was a strong emphasis during the day on the transformational potential of planning.

Alfonso Vegara, of Fundación Metropóli, describing the rejuvenation of Bilbao, suggested that successful planning needs to recognise the new scale of cities and economic development. The interconnections mean that growth corridors or city regions are only going to become more important. Successful economic growth will be dependent on retaining and attracting talent and skills in polycentric areas, and strategic planning needs to take this into account. The successful regeneration of Bilbao “was not a miracle, but the result of vision and leadership.”

This theme was also reflected in Ed Cox’s session on the RTPI’s work with IPPR on the need for an integrated, spatial approach to growing the economy in the North of England. Producing a vision for prosperity will depend on addressing key structural challenges. Maximising opportunities within an interconnected metropolitan region needs to recognise the importance of both cities and their hinterlands. It was also argued that the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ ambition will fail if citizens aren’t helped to feel engaged economically, politically and socially.

A rallying cry for leadership

There has been a trend in recent years for the planning system to be portrayed as a barrier and a bureaucratic obstacle which is getting in the way of growth. One speaker quoted Joseph Konvitz saying “planning has been discredited in the public mind and starved by the public purse”. There was a strong sense during the conference of ‘enough is enough’. The consistent message was that planning and planners are not the problem, and are doing the best they can in a difficult context.

As a profession, planners are trained to take a holistic view. They operate at the junction between politics, finance and community. And they are perfectly placed to provide leadership, foresight and clarity. The skills to deliver great places, which people want to live in, are needed now, more than ever. And there is a need to “rekindle the idea of planning as a key democratic process”.

The challenge at the end of the Convention was “do it with passion, or not at all”. Planning is not a ‘numbers game’ – we need to consider quality of place and ambition, not just the drive for housing completions.


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