19 Feb 2019
Article originally featured in Thames Tap.
This month I shall use the half term holiday to take my children to a roadshow on the Oxfordshire Plan 2050.
Whilst they may not appreciate it (in both senses of the word) as current, and I hope future, residents of Oxfordshire, they have as much an interest as I do in the development of the county over the next 30 years.
They will also be more at home than me in responding to the recognition that the plan ‘will need to provide some flexibility for adaptions to be made as technological advances occur and habits change’ – their proposals for personal cross boundary Lego hover machines may brighten up some of the drier responses that this consultation will elicit.
So as preparation for our fun filled family day out here is my summary of the embryonic draft plan and accompanying topic papers:
A good co-operative start
Despite the political differences and diversity of urban and rural landscape, the Oxfordshire authorities have led the way nationally with co-operative working through the Oxfordshire Growth Board and subsequent Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal (OHGD) (November 2017) as witnessed most recently at the Cherwell Local Plan examination last week where Oxford City and West Oxfordshire battled away to assist Cherwell.
They have already agreed a Statement of Common Ground (March 2018) on this plan with minimal dispute and regard the OHGD funding as a direct response to their ‘track record of successful joint working in Oxfordshire’. This means that there can be more optimism about the Oxfordshire 2050 process and progress than there would be in many other areas nationwide.
Much to do quickly
The plan process begins tentatively with the intention of ‘starting a conversation and dissecting ‘issues’ and ‘options’ into two separate consultation processes.
With so much to grapple with, and a slow start, the timetable seeking publication of a draft plan in October 2019 and submission of the plan in March 2020 (the latter required by the OHGD) is eye-wateringly tight – and this is at a time when the preceding local plans in Cherwell and South Oxfordshire are still unresolved.
Reasons to be cheerful – within reason
There is much optimism coursing through the documents reflecting the county’s ‘economic success’. My children and their classmates are fortunate to be growing up in an area of above average quality of life and educational attainment, reflecting the fact that ‘Oxfordshire has one of the strongest economies in the UK’ being ‘one of only three net contributors to the Treasury’.
This forms a hugely positive starting point for any plan – although as it acknowledges ‘high house prices threaten quality of life and well being’.
Furthermore the opportunity for readily available options for new developments is constrained as ‘many parts of the county are protected at national and international level for their nature conservation value’. In a nutshell this is a clear challenge for all of us in the planning profession to seek to resolve this clear tension and help deliver the necessary solutions. This process will begin with a novel ‘call for ideas’ rather than the more familiar ‘sites’ requiring fresh thinking from us all.
The nuts and bolts – TBC
Whilst recognising that it needs to deliver a solution that responds to ‘the number of new market and affordable homes and level of economic growth needed across Oxfordshire’ within a matter months the plan is remarkably coy about the extent of development aspirations.
Housing need will ‘comprehensively test a range of options for growth, informed by the standard methodology, up to date evidence and ongoing engagement with stakeholders’. Similarly economic need ‘is for Oxfordshire to determine (in the light of evidence available)’. My experience at the Cherwell examination last week suggests that this process could take months of examination time – let alone months of plan preparation time.
Not all of this uncertainty is within the control of the Oxfordshire authorities – with a perhaps the largest understatement being that ‘the route of the OxCam Expressway will have implications for . . . shaping the Spatial Strategy of the Oxfordshire Plan’.
Where? Where? Where?
Given the uncertainty regarding the key housing and economic inputs, it is unsurprising that little detailed thought has gone into the potential spatial strategy – although the potential options identified would keep my children’s geometry class busy for hours.
It is also unclear - and I anticipate a source of future tension - that whilst the Oxfordshire Plan will determine the spatial strategy for broad development patterns it ‘will not allocate sites except at the request of the relevant local planning authority’.
Perhaps the clearest, and most controversial statement, is the recognition that the plan ‘offers an opportunity to assess the overall Oxford Green Belt strategy’.
26 Jul 2018
Even with the most meaningful of public exhibitions, having a say in what your city or neighbourhood should be like can often feel like a complex and time-consuming process. Recognising that community engagement has the propensity to also be dominated by those with the loudest voices, many applicants are looking at a new wave of digital tools to help make the consultation process a more interactive and inclusive one. Capitalising on the smartphone era, a range of new technological advances are being made within the community engagement space – with mobile apps leading the way.
It is fair to say that in the UK, the procedural logistics of notifying local communities of forthcoming new developments have remained rather similar since the system’s invention with the . Today, it can be the case that one of the first encounters local communities have with proposals in their neighbourhoods come in the form of a piece of A public notice fixed to a lamp post. Interested local residents must then navigate developers’ or local authority websites, sifting through often a multitude of documents, such as planning statements, technical drawings, and design and access statements (that are themselves often divided into multiple files) before forming an opinion and commenting on a proposed development.
Apps, modelled on gaming and dating applications, are increasingly being employed as a means of making the planning process more transparent, as well as allowing local residents to register their support for, or objections to proposals in their neighbourhood, more easily.
In Santa Monica, California, for example, the app CitySwipe provides local residents with images of potential development scenarios – from street furniture and parking, to murals and market stalls. With simple “yes or no” questions being asked, residents are encouraged to swipe through and select their preferred options, accordingly. The Cityswipe engagement strategy runs alongside the usual formal City Council online survey as an additional way of shaping the emerging community plan and understand the local community’s aspirations for the area. The app is also used to reduce City Council costs of producing development notices in local papers and sending consultation letters.
Downtown Santa Monica City Swipe App (Source: dtsmcityswipe.com)
Lichfields is continually exploring different means of engaging with previously harder to reach members of local communities and recognises the contribution apps can make. Closer to home, Greater Manchester is pioneering an interactive mobile-friendly map to highlight potential development sites city-wide. The Greater Manchester Open Data Infrastructure Map combines various types of ‘big data’ - from water and transport networks to property prices and brownfield land - offering a comprehensive overview of the city’s infrastructure. Recently, an additional map layer has been added, showing proposed development sites in the emerging Greater Manchester Spatial Framework. This layer combines sites allocated by the Council with those promoted by residents and developers. Users can also select specific sites to view the Council’s assessment(s) of each.
In Edinburgh, UrbanPlanAR, Linknode and Heriot-Watt University have produced a mobile augmented reality architectural visualisation platform for planners and local communities. TrueViewVisuals is a commercial platform for architectural and infrastructural visualisation, which also attempts to better engage people in the planning process. The use of 3D data enables ‘in-field visualisation’ of proposed schemes. As such, users are able point their phone or tablet at a development site as if taking a picture and see a visualisation of the planned building on their screen – think Pokémon Go for planning! My colleague Mark’s blog discusses this technique in further detail.
The use of apps in community engagement reflect the fast-paced world we inhabit, by allowing views to be given at a swipe or touch of a screen. Moreover, apps can simplify what might be otherwise regarded as long-drawn-out planning exercises into being something more tangible for local communities to grasp.
Technology, of course, is not the only way to improve and increase community engagement in planning, as not everyone is comfortable with using such platforms. However, it does present an additional tool for engaging with new groups – an opportunity which is constantly being tried, tested and refined.
 Town and Country Planning Act 1947.