Citizen Space: planning consultation software for England's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF)

The importance of consultation in spatial planning policy

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) sets out the UK Government's planning policies for England and how these policies should be applied – essentially, spelling out what it considers to be good planning work.

According to the National Planning Policy Framework's guidance, you must engage, involve and consult the public in your planning process.


What is the UK's National Planning Policy Framework?

The National Planning Policy Framework summarises the UK Government's policies and priorities around planning, with a focus on practical application.

It places a high overall emphasis on 'achieving sustainable development'. This is evaluated against simultaneous fulfilment of specified economic, social and environmental objectives.

In addition to explaining particular considerations of spatial planning in England (such as protecting Green Belt land and mitigating flooding risks), the NPPF extensively covers topics such as plan-making, decision-making and 'high-quality communications'.

The Framework repeatedly stresses the importance of community engagement, public involvement and planning consultation to a successful planning project.

Planning guidance in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

The Framework expressly applies to planning in England – recognising that guidance may vary slightly in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as a result of their devolved national governments.

A 2016 Government research paper on this topic explains that 'although the basic structures of the four systems are similar, there are differences in the detail and in how each system works'.

The Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have their own planning guidance:

How important is consultation to the NPPF planning process?

The NPPF is clear that any planning process should strive to understand communities' needs, and show how it will fulfil those needs.

This is because the Framework's overarching view of all planning is that its 'purpose is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development'.

The Framework gives three key measures of what constitutes sustainable development. One of these three key definitions is 'securing a social objective' – a built environment that reflects communities' current and future needs.

Consequently, every planning process's chances of success will be improved by public consultation and engagement.

  • 3 of the NPPF's 6 criteria for good plan-making talk specifically about the importance of community and the public's role in shaping the plan-making process.
  • 2 refer specifically to public involvement and engagement (typically achieved through various methods of consultation).
  • And 1 of them even expressly specifies 'the use of digital tools to assist public involvement'.

Developing a 30-year Local Plan for West Lancashire, UK

West Lancashire Borough Council, UK, were developing an ambitious Local Plan – proposing plans for the next three decades instead of the usual 15 years.

The plan included the construction of 15,000 new homes across the region by 2050. Some of the developments would be built on green belt land, which was likely to be met with significant opposition from local residents.

The Council knew the importance of consulting the public on such a major proposal. They used an online democracy platform to run the end-to-end consultation process. They received over 1,500 responses to their Local Plan, the majority of which were submitted digitally.

It’s so easy to understand and communicate to people through Citizen Space. There was plenty of opportunity to just have a good chat about the Local Plan – instead of the public just being talked at, they could ask us questions as well. And everything was in one place, which was great, rather than having a big separate pile of paper responses.

Grace Wilson, Planning Officer, West Lancashire Borough Council, UK

What types of planning activity does the NPPF cover?

The NPPF applies to a wide range of planning projects.

This could include anything from the construction of a major new shopping complex to the renovation of a small playground – essentially any 'locally-prepared plan', for housing and other developments.

There are some cases which will require cross-referencing with additional, related guidance – specifically, the Government's planning policy for traveller sites, and its planning policy for waste. The Framework also does not cover specific policies for 'nationally significant infrastructure projects'; these are instead set out in the Planning Act (2008).


What is a Local Plan?

Local plans are put together by the Local Planning Authority (LPA); often a Council, National Park authority or a joint initiative between several local council bodies.

A Local Plan can be a single document or consist of a number of different documents such as a Core Strategies, Site Allocations Policies and Area Action Plans. The aim is to set out a vision for the future of the area and a strategy for getting there, considering requirements for housing and land land use, infrastructure, economic needs and ecological improvement.

What are the stages of a Local Plan?

  • Evidence gathering: understanding the state of the area, what issues exist and the options for improvement and development
  • Consultation: Get feedback, solutions and ideas from citizens and stakeholders
  • Initial publication (6 weeks): publish the draft plan and consult the public to allow them to make further representations.
  • Submission: submit plan to the Secretary of State who will get the Planning Inspectorate to independently examine.
  • Found Sound: If the plan meets the 4 main requirements of the NPPF then it will be found sound
  • Adoption: The plan is formally adopted (often with a vote by the council) and is used to inform future developments for the area.

The role of consultation in Local Plans

There is a statutory requirement for consultation in the formation of Local Plans.

This enables the local authority to gather evidence of a Plan’s viability as well as make sure they are acting in the best interests of the residents and other local stakeholders.


Customer story: Leicester City Council, UK

Leicester City Council used Citizen Space to simplify its Local Plan public consultation process.

Since 2014, Leicester City Council had undertaken a range of consultation exercises on various stages of developing its Local Plan. In 2019, the Council produced a draft Local Plan, setting out the vision and objectives for growth of the city over the coming 15 years.

By its nature, responding to such large scale proposals was a dense and complex process. Leicester City Council used an online consultation with participant-led survey routing to make it simpler and more convenient for people to participate.

Respondents were able to visit and respond to as many or as few sections or individual sites as they liked. The Council also provided a section for those that wanted to simply leave a general comment and then exit.

By using routing in this way and putting the respondent in charge of how they navigated the consultation, Leicester City Council considerably lowered the barriers to entry for members of the public to engage with their draft Local Plan.

These consultations have considered all aspects of planning policy, although the fundamental focus has always been around the level of growth and how growth is delivered. Please share your views and help to shape the future of Leicester.

Leicester City Council, UK

What is the role of the UK's Planning Inspectorate and how does it work with Local Plans?

The Planning Inspectorate’s role is to advise and assist plan makers and make decisions about planning-related issues.

The Planning Inspectorate is an executive agency sponsored by the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government. They deal with examinations of local plans, planning processes around Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) and planning appeals.

When a Local Plan has been finished by a Local Planning Authority it is submitted to the Secretary of State for approval. The Planning Inspectorate will appoint an independent inspector to carry out the assessment and determine if it is ‘sound’; if it follows the guidelines set out in the National Planning Policy Framework.


What is a Statement of Community Involvement?

A Statement of Community Involvement is part of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, which specifies that local planning authorities must prepare such a statement.

It is, exactly as the name would suggest, simply a document setting out how the authority will make sure that the community can play a part in the decision-making process.

Its technical definition of community for these purposes is 'persons who appear to the authority to have an interest in matters relating to development in their area.'


Consulting on a Statement of Community Involvement

Staffordshire County Council wanted to make sure the public were involved in the creation of their Statement of Community Involvement (SCI).

The Council had an existing SCI but it needed updating and replacing. Before producing a final version of the Statement, they opened up the draft for public comments.

They ran an online public consultation, with the aim of ensuring the updated guidance was straightforward and easy for the public to understand.

Every planning authority must produce a Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) to explain how we will consult with people and organisations when we are processing planning applications or preparing planning policies. We want to hear people’s comments on the new document before it is formally adopted by the County Council.

Staffordshire County Council

What is a 'call for sites'?

The UK government requires local authorities to identify land that could be used for future developments.

As part of this process, local authorities will invite people to put forward locations to be considered for potential development.

Often, these sites will be put forward by landowners or developers – but individual residents and any other interested parties are equally able to submit locations for consideration.

The consulting authority will then decide which sites it is interested in assessing further, taking them forward to a Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment (SHLAA) or similar process.


Richmond call for sites 2020

The London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames issued a public call for sites and broad locations alongside their Local Plan consultation.

Their goal was to develop a better understanding at an early stage about what land may become available during the Local Plan period, and to get a clearer sense of their deliverability.

They ran the call as an open, online consultation, using Citizen Space to allow the public to submit potential sites for consideration.

The Council is required by Government guidance to issue a call for sites and broad locations for development as part of the preparation of the new Local Plan. This is to identify as many potential opportunities as possible, aimed at as wide an audience as possible so that those not normally involved in property development have the opportunity to contribute.

London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames

How does a Neighbourhood Plan differ from a Local Plan?

A Neighbourhood Plan is a focused plan for a specific community, designed to sit alongside the Local Plan as part of the region’s overall Development Plan.

It enables communities to set out how they’d like their area to develop and how they’d like to prioritise development. The local community will work with their Parish Council (or a Neighbourhood Forum if no Parish Council exists) to set out a vision of their area, designed to be used in conjunction with the Local Plan when assessing planning applications.

The Local Plan sets out a framework of strategic and non-strategic policies for the district’s development. This covers housing, commercial development, infrastructure, the environment and other planning policy considerations.

A Neighbourhood Plan must follow ‘General Conformity’, which means adhering to the Local Plan’s strategic policies. This gives structure and a direction to the Neighbourhood Plan but also freedom to tailor the non-strategic policies to further meet local needs.


Examples of Neighbourhood Plan consultations across England

Redington Frognal – London Borough of Camden
Redington Frognal Neighbourhood Forum submitted its proposed Neighbourhood Plan to Camden Council. The Council then sought views and comments on the draft Plan from residents and other interested stakeholders, using the Citizen Space democracy platform.

Rooley Moor – Rochdale Borough Council
Rooley Moor Neighbourhood Forum submitted a Neighbourhood Development Plan for consultation. Rochdale Borough Council invited the public to comment on the Plan online, via Citizen Space, or in-person, at local libraries.

Ellistown and Battleflat – North West Leicestershire District Council
The Parish Council submitted their Neighbourhood Plan to North West Leicestershire District Council. The District Council used its Citizen Space democracy platform to make both the submission plan and supporting documents available online for public review and response.

This represents a final opportunity for those interested to make comments on the Neighbourhood Plan. Responses received will be forwarded to the Independent Examiner whose role it is to recommend amendments and whether or not the Development Plan should proceed to referendum.

Rochdale Borough Council, UK

How might the 'Planning for the Future' White Paper change things?

In August 2020, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) released a draft of its 'Planning for the Future' White Paper for consultation. It outlines possible changes to the planning policy in England, which will likely adjust or supersede some of the details in the current NPPF.

Understandably, the White Paper is broad in its scope, covering myriad aspects of the planning process – and it's important to note that as of November 2020, none of the proposals have yet been formally codified or adopted into law.

Nevertheless, it's important to be aware of the general trajectories under consideration. For instance, one strong theme, emphasised throughout, is harnessing digital technology in order to modernise the planning system – and to make it more accessible to more people.

There's also a clear appetite to build trust in the process, and an aspiration to expedite it. We have written about the 'Planning for the Future' White Paper in more depth in our newsroom.

It will be essential that [design codes and guides] are prepared with effective inputs from the local community, considering evidence of what is popular and characteristic in the local area…Designs and codes should only be given weight in the planning process if [local authorities] can demonstrate that this input has been secured.

'Planning for the Future' White Paper

Do other countries have an equivalent of the NPPF?

The National Planning Policy Framework is based specifically on UK legislation, and is designed for use in planning projects in England. However, many of its recommendations reflect general best practice and principles, applicable to planning processes anywhere in the world.

Planning guidance outside the UK

Other countries and states also have similar planning policy guidance, such as:


In-depth planning engagement in Western Australia

Customer story: The Western Australia Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage (DPLH)

DPLH ran an expansive democratic exercise called ‘The Street Where You Live’, asking residents what they thought the future of planning and urban density in their area should look like.

The project was hosted in the suburb of Carlisle – considered a representative community for the wider area of Perth and Peel. The data collected was used to create a publicly-deliberated model of the future, which planners could take into account when considering how to support a growing population.

help to shape the future of Perth…have your say on the benefits and challenges of smart, targeted density to our neighbourhoods through our online survey.

Government of Western Australia, Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage

Who should be involved in an effective planning consultation?

The NPPF is clear about the various parties that need to be considered in any planning consultation – including (but not necessarily limited to):

  • the plan-makers
  • the local planning authority
  • in two-tier areas, the county council
  • strategic policy-making authorities and relevant bodies
  • communities – local residents who will be affected by the proposed plan
  • local organisations and businesses
  • infrastructure providers and operators
  • statutory consultees

Consulting on the Local Plan for Central Lancashire, UK

Three local authorities – Preston City Council, South Ribble Borough Council and Chorley Council – worked together to produce a Local Plan for Central Lancashire. They consulted extensively on the whole process online.

Their Local Plan consultation hosted two main surveys: Issues and Options for the draft Plan, and Phase 3 of a Call for Sites – an opportunity for residents and organisations to request certain developments.

The Council also produced a separate Equalities Monitoring survey and a version of the Issues and Options consultation especially aimed at young people.

We want you to have your say about what matters most to you about Central Lancashire. Get involved in shaping the new Central Lancashire Local Plan. Your input will help shape the strategies and policies for Central Lancashire from now until 2036.

Central Lancashire Local Plan

Is accessibility a big consideration?

Accessibility should always be a major consideration in public consultation.

It is about enabling the widest range of people to participate, and making it easy for people to give their views.

This is vital under the NPPF because of its emphasis on taking community needs and preferences into account.

If a planning consultation is not accessible, significant numbers of people may be unfairly excluded from participating.

The best digital platforms, like Citizen Space, incorporate accessibility into the design of the system. There is more information about how to use Citizen Space to build an accessible planning consultation in our knowlege base.


Improving public access to the Local Plan process in Hamilton, New Zealand

Hamilton City Council, in New Zealand, knew that their Local Plan consultation process needed modernising. Respondents were still submitting their comments by post, and the consultation was taking months due to the unnecessary admin work. They were also getting a low response rate.

They used Citizen Space to run their next Local Plan consultation, and the results were astonishing. They got 10 times their previous response rate, but even with this huge jump in numbers they managed to shave a whole month from the consultation process.

Elected members loved it: the Response Publishing feature meant that they could search for a specific person’s comments in face-to-face Q&A events with the public. The engagement team were even able to take the consultation out to the local community, by loading Citizen Space in kiosk mode on iPads and going out into care homes.

People felt that the council were taking the process and feedback seriously and were actually including that in their decision-making – and it was a lot more transparent than it had been before.

Julie Clausen, administrator

What does 'Plantech' mean?

'Plantech' simply refers to 'planning technology' – digital tools and software designed specifically to assist with the planning process.

The term was also coined for a specific report into the emerging field, produced by the Connected Places Catapult. We have written in more detail about the initial Connected Places Catapult in our newsroom.

What is online consultation software?

Public consultation is the process of asking for the public’s input on a policy or decision that affects them.

It's important that public consultation processes be made available online, for ease of public access – so that the widest range of people are able to participate in a convenient way.

That's why digital consultation software has become such an important part of planning activity: it allows organisations to easily create and run public consultations online, fulfilling a crucial part of the planning process.


Are there online tools specifically for planning consultation?

Yes; a lot of 'plantech' tools cover discrete aspects of the consultation process – for example, collaborative mapping or the display of geospatial data.

Citizen Space from Delib is widely used as planning consultation software to increase involvement in planning projects.

Public sector bodies and private companies whose work affects the built and natural environment use Delib tools to run participation processes more effectively.

Digital platforms like Citizen Space help them to engage with multiple stakeholders, comply with statutory obligations and gather input from wide ranges of people.

How planners use Citizen Space for geospatial planning consultation.


Customer story: Melton Borough Council, UK

Melton Borough Council, UK, decided to switch from their previous online planning system to Citizen Space.

Their previous software was inaccessible and difficult to use, so when they had a natural break in work, they decided it was a perfect time to change over.

They ran their Local Plan consultation on Citizen Space and the new platform was appreciated by both staff and members of the public. The previous software did not have the option to save a response and come back to it, which caused a good deal of frustration when respondents’ submissions got deleted.

Planning officers loved it too as having everything on a centralised platform saved officers time when dealing with enquiries.

A huge challenge facing Local Authorities is getting people to comment on consultations; having this system has helped us achieve better, more rounded consultation. Public comments have been that the system is much more user-friendly and people prefer it to the previous software, which required them to set up an account and log in.

Consultation Manager, Melton Borough Council