Over the last sixteen months, Covid-19 has pushed numerous parts of our lives online, from socialising with friends and family, doing our weekly food shop and for the planning profession, conducting public consultation events for major development proposals. Although the pandemic has been responsible for changing some pretty significant aspects of our role as planners, as professionals in Scotland, we are also undergoing a sustained period of planning reform, which includes a programme of digitalisation.

I recently chaired a digital planning event, which was organised by the Women in Planning Glasgow Branch and sponsored by Montagu Evans.

If you missed the event and are interested in finding out more, the webinar was recorded and is available to view below.

The session brought together three diverse speakers who each gave an insight into how their role has contributed towards the ongoing digitalisation that we are experiencing. The trio of speakers included:-

  • Alastair Stewart, Account Manager at Orbit Communications who has led on over 45 digital consultations for planning projects across Scotland since March 2020;
  • Philippa Vigano, the Innovative Technologies Programme Manager at NatureScot, who has developed a digital habitat and land cover map of Scotland; and
  • Diane Rennie, who is the Digital Planning Programme Director at the Scottish Government leading the team behind the digital transformation of planning.

Alastair discussed that where traditional, in person public consultations were often poorly attended, he has found that as events have moved online as a result of Covid-19, digital consultations are now attracting visits from over 500 people on average. However, for online events to be successful, it’s not as simple as just replicating an in person meeting on a digital platform. Building an audience is a critical component of successful digital engagement and there is a need to research groups and seek out individuals who may be interested in a development well in advance of a planned event. Although the move online has had many positives, Alastair advised that it has also had its challenges, with digital unease and exclusion being two factors that could inadvertently exclude members of communities. The purpose of public consultation in planning is to ultimately ensure that anyone with a particular interest in a development can have their say, so it is essential that if digital is here to stay, that there are always alterative, non-digital ways offered for communities to get involved.

Philippa discussed her work to develop a high resolution habitat and land cover map of Scotland and advised that the Innovative Technologies Programme at NatureScot was established to explore how to mainstream the use of technology and data to enhance our understanding of the environment and how it is changing. The national habitat and land cover map was created using satellite data from space and Artificial Intelligence to classify the information gathered, which has enabled NatureScot to operate more efficiently by creating a way to monitor sites remotely. How we use and manage land is becoming increasingly important in our efforts to meet net zero, address the climate emergency and tackle the biodiversity crisis, therefore the online habitat and land cover map has the potential to become a helpful tool to both monitor and protect habitats across the country.

Diane gave an overview of the digital planning transformation programme at the Scottish Government to date and discussed that following the creation of a digital ministerial task force in 2017, the ‘Transforming Places Together: digital strategy for planning’ was published in November 2020. When beginning to explore how to digitally transform the planning sector, Diane advised that there were no comparable countries who had undertaken the task in its entirety, which meant that the Scottish Government began by speaking to those people who work within and use the planning system to understand the current challenges and to identify future opportunities. As part of the digital strategy, Diane confirmed that a new suite of digital services are proposed, with a number of these to be unveiled with the publication of the draft National Planning Framework 4. A smart application process for development management is also expected.

The session was extremely informative on the digitalisation of the planning profession, which I was delighted to chair. If you have the opportunity, I’d highly recommend watching the recording and if you should have any questions, please do not hesitate to get in touch with myself direct or the speakers of the event, who have provided their contact details within the webinar slides.