Transforming Places Together: digital strategy for planning

This strategy defines a long-term strategic direction for how Scotland’s planning system will digitally transform, embracing the opportunities new digital technologies and data present. It sets out what we intend to deliver, why this is needed and the benefits this transformation will bring.

A digitally transformed planning system

Digital will have a fundamental impact on Scotland’s planning system. Through harnessing and realising the potential opportunities digital brings, we can radically improve how planning works for all, contributing to create a prosperous, green and fair country. The recovery from COVID-19 means the need for these high quality digital services are more crucial than ever.

We talk about an ambitious, future proofed planning system that uses digital and data to transform the service. But in practice it can be hard to visualise and relate to what that means, and how it could generate improvements. With the help of prototypes developed during the research and development of this Strategy we can communicate and explain the improvements outlined in this section. Through user research and stakeholder engagement we determined which elements of a digitally-enabled planning system would have the greatest transformative impact. The prototypes in this section practically demonstrate how these elements will be transformed and delivered.

“Harnessing digital opportunities can radically improve how planning works for all.”

A planning system fit for the future, able to adapt to new technology and innovations as they become available. Using innovative 3rd party technologies which give planners the best solutions for the tasks in hand rather than being limited by legacy technology and ways of working. We want to move away from current systems to modular, open and flexible solutions that enable public sector planners to rapidly benefit from technology progress and innovations including augmented reality and 3D visualisations, AI and machine learning and digital twin technologies. Giving planners the tools and data they need to collaborate and improve decision-making.

Joined up, holistic and providing an end-to-end service for customers. By this we mean the experience a customer receives when using the planning system is seamless and joined up, regardless of where the underpinning data, policy and systems are derived. This will be developed through a suite of simple, intuitive and joined up digital services that present a consistent experience to the user, accessed through our Planning Scotland Gateway. Where development planning and development management are more integrated using digital tools. That allow planners a more intuitive way of seeing and taking account of development plan policies when assessing applications, and where decisions made through the application process can be relayed back into development plan policy in real time and used to track progress towards policy outcomes.

A system that has data at its heart

Where we can find, access and use high quality, trusted data across the planning system and beyond. Data that supports local decision making and community activities whilst delivering a joined up national picture of what is happening where, for those working across boundaries. To see the alignment and relationships much more clearly between community, local authority, regional and national policies and outcomes by having the right data available in real time.

A system that takes a data driven approach to policy making and guidance. Where planning moves from being primarily document led to being led by rules, standards and data allowing greater consistency, clarity, efficiency and providing the building blocks to support future innovations. That uses data to reduce, and automate repetitive tasks releasing resource and focusing planners time on where their professional expertise adds most value. With sample survey evidence shows this could release up to 2 hours per day of a planner’s time.

That uses data insights and analytics to learn from past experience of policy impacts and models future to support evidence based policy development and outcomes. That delivers real time data, and tracks delivery of key policies and impacts e.g. development plans based on interactive live data rather than fixed picture at a point in time. And that opens up data across all sectors to drive digital economy and data opportunities, driving innovation and supporting the PlaceTech innovation and incubator hub.

Open and accessible to all

Inclusive and empowering, helping everyone get involved. Providing new ways to get people involved in shaping their towns, cities and communities. Increase the numbers and broaden the demographics getting involved in planning by providing new digital tools for participating. These should integrate with the wider ‘digital planning ecosystem’, boosting civic engagement by using new intuitive digital tools for engagement citizens and communities, and in turn providing the information in a way which is meaningful and easily consumable by the planning body responsible for developing policies and making decisions. These tools should be accessible via mobile or smartphone devices and integrate with social media channels adopting the principle of ‘going to where people are’ to allow them to find information and participate in the simplest and most intuitive way.

A streamlined, efficient planning application process

The process of applying for planning permission should be clear, easy to understand and follow, and digitally enabled, giving applicants greater clarity throughout the process.

A smart planning application approach, that uses machine readable standardised forms will help streamline and provide consistency, forming the foundation for innovation. We believe that there’s huge potential through use of smart data-driven guidance and policy, to give clear information to potential applicants at the very earliest point in the process based upon their location, and what they want to do. For example, helping applicants understand whether they need planning permission and whether they have submitted a valid (complete) application will improve the user experience, and reduce resource overhead at the planning authority. With the potential to get real time updates on what stage the planning application is at in the process in terms of the officer’s consideration – removing the need to liaise directly with the case officer to get a status update.

Our planning authorities need solutions for managing and deciding cases that are future-proofed, streamlined and support improved communications and collaboration with business, consultees and applicants. Providing interactive and collaborative tools that support joined up working where we value and enable collaboration is a key principle of the improved application process. Bringing modern digital services to planning case management, and enabling technologies such as 3D visualisation and BIM to form a core part of the application process, will help communicate the proposed development and understanding of the impact.

We need a system that allows commenters to see and engage with planning applications independent of geographic boundaries. And that provide people simple digital ways of being notified of applications in a way they choose e.g. smartphone notification.

“Applying for planning permission should be clear, easy to understand and follow.”

Information about planning and places should be easy to find and understand, being able to take into account local planning policies and rules, together with national legislation and policies. But in addition, information provided could and should be inspirational and ambitious – able to capture and reflect people’s hopes and aspirations about their homes, communities and country. Our user research has told us that people want to see inspiring examples at the beginning of their planning journey and understand clear process steps for what they need to do set out in plain English. The ‘find and explore’ service proposed in this strategy will enable this.

Bringing together all information and services about planning in Scotland will, for the first time, provide users with a comprehensive view of all aspects of planning – from national and local plans to individual applications. We have the foundational platform of the service to build upon. This partnership shared service between Scottish Government and all Scottish planning authorities now accounts for 95% of all planning applications made in Scotland and presents huge potential opportunity to develop a next generation Planning Scotland Gateway.

Improving validation


One of the biggest frustrations for both applicants and planning authorities is the high proportion of invalid applications (over 50%). To show how a digital planning system might address this we have developed an illustrative prototype that combines data and local policies in real time to improve validation.

It starts with the simple question, “Do I need planning permission?”, presenting a series of questions establishing the nature and purpose of the proposed new development. Datasets such as flood risk, listed buildings, greenspace and conservation areas are drawn in to help determine the requirement for planning permission and the documentation needed for a valid application.

A plan-led system

Spatial development plans set out the long-term vision for where development should and shouldn’t happen in the places they cover. A digitally enabled system for development planning should enable these spatial development plans to play a key role in bringing all those involved in planning together to collaborate and prepare plans. Evidenced though our horizon scanning work, we believe there are much more effective and engaging ways of preparing and presenting plans. There is also scope for digital solutions to achieve integration – from national to local and community scales and across different interests, for example – by linking with infrastructure programmes and regional land use partnerships.

A future system should allow users to see the alignment and relationships much more clearly between community, local authority, regional and national policies, plans and outcomes by having the right data available in real time. With a standardised data led approach for spatial planning we ensure data can be integrated vertically (across geographical scales) and at the heart of engagement using digital tools. For the next National Planning Framework currently under preparation this involves adopting a digital led approach using data to prepare, present and engage on NPF4.

For Local Development Plans, prepared by planning authorities this means having the ability to find, access and make use of the right data when preparing them.

We know that significant time is spent sourcing data and a digital planning system will greatly reduce this. Up-to-date data will provide an accurate view of progress towards targets and policy outcomes, providing those involved in delivering development such as utility and infrastructure providers more clarity on capacity. Together with NPF4, local development plans will form the future statutory development plan and there would be great advantage in working towards a system where they are presented together, using a shared digital platform. This will allow people to see how national policies work together with local scale planning in their local neighbourhood.

For communities developing their Local Place Plans, this means ensuring that more people are able to contribute to the conversation about place, and to channel their views meaningfully to planning authorities. Through our CivTech® challenge we have already been working with The Future Fox start-up to develop the PlaceBuilder product which will publicly launch in March 2021. This digital engagement tool helps communities shape their communities and produce Local Place Plans, then provide the data and information to the planning authority in an easily consumable way that they can use as part of the LDP process.

“We know that significant time is spent sourcing data and a digital planning system will greatly reduce this.”

Five Missions

Introducing new technology alone into the planning system will not bring about the vision we have for transformation. A whole-system approach is required that combines advances in technology and data, with organisational and cultural change.

Our Five Missions are of equal importance and will be given equal weight when the transformation programme begins.

They reflect that whole-system view of transformation and provide the foundational building blocks for a future planning system.

Each mission sets out both 5 Year Goals that we aspire to, along with clear and focused actions over the next 18-24 months. These immediate actions blend delivering value early, for example by building on existing work or services, and starting work on the large, complex change pieces that will take longer to achieve.

  • Mission 1: Data

    Unlock the value of planning data

  • Mission 2: Digital Technologies

    Deliver an end-to-end digital planning experience

  • Mission 3: Ways of working

    Create the conditions for digital to flourish

  • Mission 4: People

    Use digital tools to drive collaboration and engagement

  • Mission 5: Innovation

    Embed a culture of digital innovation



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