The PropTech Engagement Fund was launched in 2021 and has worked with 41 Local Authorities to date on accelerating the adoption of digital citizen engagement tools and transforming community involvement in placemaking. Our ongoing programme is the largest UK Government PropTech Programme, leading on how to work with industry, tech start ups and local governments to increase the diversity and positivity of placemaking conversations and to fast track new digital policy and local housing delivery.
Historically many local authorities have reported less than 1% of the population engage with Local Plans, and demographics represented in responses are not diverse or representative of communities. Communities find planning hard to understand, confusing and engagement is often analogue, with pre-digital era feedback channels (e.g. requiring attendance at face-to-face events or sending letters). This has led to distrust of developers and Local Authorities, and those who would most stand to benefit are not having their voices heard. Solving these problems requires significant transformation, ambition and a radical approach.
Acting as a central convenor, working alongside Local Planning Authorities and the fast paced, world leading PropTech (Property Technology) sector, the team has delivered an unprecedented level of digital transformation to enable local gov to meaningfully and inclusively engage with communities. So far, 41 projects have transformed the landscape of citizen engagement by empowering LPAs to use digital tools to radically increase the quantity and quality of engagement with planning. Two funding rounds, informed by user research, were launched in year 1 with a focus on estate regeneration, sustainability and acceleration of housing delivery.
The programme has supported local authorities to meaningfully educate, engage and inspire communities through online platforms which results in a 1000% increase against normal engagement levels. They team have worked tirelessly to champion councils, hosted over 20 show & tells to facilitate knowledge sharing, built strong relationships with government departments and policy teams beyond their usual remit, and created a working group across digital engagement suppliers. Throughout this work the team have engaged traditionally risk averse council partners to shift their culture towards agile methodologies which have allowed them to test, iterate and incorporate learnings as they delivered their pilot projects.
Historically many local authorities report less than 1% of their population engage with Local Plans. Following funding, Cotswolds reported 6,532 people visiting their project’s consultation platform, approximately 7% of their population. Leicester City Council saw an ‘unbelievable response’, over 1200 visitors despite digital poverty in the area. Epsom & Ewell received nearly 2,000 individual respondents with 10% identifying as having accessibility needs. As part of Round 2 of our Fund, Epsom and Ewell Council stated they were confident that the digital element of the Fund 'helped us to significantly improve the number of people who engaged in our consultation and encouraged more people to get involved in a planning consultation (55% of people who took part said they hadn’t been involved in a planning consultation before).' This is just one example of how these digital tools and pilots are helping to increase the diversity of participants in local consultations, enabling local councils to build positive relationships with entirely new groups of people whose voices were previously unheard.
We had over 600 attendees at our Showcase event to share learnings from the programme, and are working with LPAs to co-create best practice guidance and develop a world leading community of practice that accelerates adoption at scale.
Testimonials from two of the groups we worked with are provided here:
‘We have been exploring digital solutions we could only have dreamed of….This is the first time I feel that we are embracing a collaborative approach in how we help all members of our community engage in the planning process. Without DLUHC encouraging us to think outside of the box, we wouldn’t have thought to promote planning engagement in places like this’ - Watford Council
‘Since I’ve started the company, I don’t think any government support has happened that’s had such potential to drive forward adoption like this.’ CEO of Built-ID (Award winning UK Tech Company)
'PropTech is a good way of exploring [the benefits of digital] in a supporting collaborative environment rather than gambling with the council’s resources to see what might happen' - Bolsover District Council
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The ongoing programme has to date worked with 45 local authorities across the UK who are pushing the boundaries of how digital engagement tools can be used across a variety of consultations within and beyond planning. It is the largest UK Gov PropTech Programme across all sectors, leading on a global scale.
The PropTech Engagement Fund is generating locally unprecedented, tangible evidence of how adoption of digital citizen engagement tools can increase the quantity and quality of community engagement outcomes and lead to more positive conversations about planning and regeneration. We believe that the quality of this evidence and outcomes from the Fund will support further, faster adoption across the industry to drive the digital planning agenda forward in a self-sustaining manner. As adoption of digital citizen engagement tools accelerates and scales across the industry, the Department and our motivated partners continue to work together to resolve emerging barriers to adoption.
What is the current status of your innovation?
By nature of the PropTech Engagement Fund having multiple rounds, the status of the innovation is varied and constantly evolving. For example, Round 1 of the Fund has now been completed and we are now in the evaluation and diffusing lessons stage. This involves assessing the effectiveness of our interventions through analysis of individual detailed reports from local authorities, 1-1 interviews, case study development and discussions with the tech start ups involved to understand the key outcomes that were achieved and challenges that were faced. Round 2 of the Fund is live and in full implementation stage. Local authority projects will be completing within the next few months and we have agreed a full Monitoring & Evaluation Plan with them in order to align outcomes and reporting styles. Finally, a new allocation of 'Top Up' Funding has also just been announced, and we are currently scoping the shortlist of opportunities and local authorities that this funding will target.
Collaborations & Partnerships
As part of the Fund we have worked with over 45 local authority partners, over 18 PropTech start ups, other central government bodies such as Homes England and statutory consultees such as the Planning Inspectorate. We have also attended Neighbourhood Planning Conference to gain a greater understanding of placemaking issues communities are facing at a micro level. We have identified and liaised with partners such as the Canadian government who we believe we can learn from in terms of innovation
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Citizens have found it easier and more appealing to get involved in planning conversations. For example, Watford Council found that 100% of people surveyed said the tools make it easier for them to find out about planning applications and 75% said the tools make them more likely to get involved with the Council’s planning service. Also, most of the PropTech companies we work with have below 20 employees so the Fund has given these start ups a forum to test and scale their digital products.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
Historically many local authorities report less than 1% of their population engage with Local Plans. Following funding, Cotswolds reported 6,532 people visiting their project’s consultation platform, approximately 7% of their population. Leicester City Council saw an ‘unbelievable response’, over 1200 visitors despite digital poverty in the area. Epsom & Ewell received nearly 2,000 individual respondents with 10% identifying as having accessibility needs. We had over 600 attendees at our Showcase event to share learnings, and are working with LPAs to co-create best practice guidance and develop a world leading community of practice that accelerates adoption at scale. Many of the Round 2 projects are still ongoing and therefore results are interim, however as an example of emerging results Watford said “we’ve already had about 900 unique visitors in the first few weeks it’s been live. This is higher than many of our other engagements and we haven’t even properly promoted it yet”.
Challenges and Failures
The following summarises the barriers we have identified to adoption of digital tools at local government level:
- LPAs are aware of the need to digitise but struggle to evidence the tangible benefits to management teams (e.g. cost reductions, improved engagement).
- LPAs often need specific skills and training support to make DCE tools a success, such as procurement, GDPR or GIS training, all of which ensure LPAs are not left vulnerable in terms of their ability to play a part in platform curation or judge value for money for example.
- Among residents there are differing levels of IT skills and enthusiasm for using digital tools.
- Planning language can still be overly complex and discourage people from engaging, even on digital platforms.
- Some LPAs have concerns about accessibility of these tools, whether that is around digital exclusion or worries that automatic translations/language tools being used may not provide an accurate representation or may mistranslate.
Conditions for Success
The Fund has taught us and all of our stakeholders that digital tools are not the only answer. There is still an important role for traditional, in person engagement with communities and the combination of the two approaches is essential to successful consultation.
Secondly, we know that multi-disciplinary teams are needed to deliver effective engagement projects at speed and scale (e.g. planning professionals as well other skills such as communications specialists, local community champions and data analysts).
We have learnt from the Fund that there is a tension for local governments between meeting traditional policy regulations versus the needs and wants of the public to contribute to placemaking in a more digital, innovative way. This learning is being fed back to our policy teams and into emerging national policy development.
There is also a real need for case studies. Local authorities rely on tangible evidence to get buy in for digital innovation internally.
Many of our local authorities have continued to develop and replicate the learnings from the Fund and create legacy for digital innovation. For example, Southampton's digital platform is now scaled across wider statutory planning team. Cotswolds will now be working with their digital supplier for all future consultations. Chesterfield have extended their digital licence and are now with leading a new product development group to inform future capabilities. Watford have created a new FTE role in the digital improvement team to continue their great work, and Stockport have similarly created a new FTE role in user centred design within their planning team, to continue to build on our work together.
Given the level of industry interest in this sector, our team and LPAs have been proactively approached and invited to speak at a range of events and showcases.
We have highlighted just some of the many lessons learned as part of our pilots below:
- The pilots highlighted the importance of having a detailed brief with all requirements and KPIs included. They discovered there is value in collaborative workshops pre-commencement to figure out requirements, and in drawing on known networks to ask people what suppliers they’d recommend.
- It is crucial to bring internal comms and engagement teams on the journey to ensure alignment with any existing outreach strategies, to spread the innovation word and to leverage existing relationships with user groups and wider communities.
- There is value in pre-market engagement with the tech community - this helps refine the tech specifications/briefs and optimise budgets.
- Analytics built into PropTech platforms have been key to keeping digital platforms optimised and tweaking approaches in real time (e.g. low responses from young people encouraged one local authority to add targeted messages for that group).
We wanted to share the following examples of how our pilots and innovation have been adopted and scaled into wider industry:
- The GLA (Great London Authority) have just agreed with one of our core tech companies to adopt the interface platform/UX they developed with Watford (Round 1) across all major development management sites in London.
- The ‘Voice to Text’ translation that was developed as part of the pilots is now being scaled into other Local Authorities .
- The Document Uploading / Management system that was developed for statutory consultees as part of the pilots is also now being scaled across other Local Authorities.
- The Digital Branding and Communications tools developed at Wandsworth as part of the pilot are now being adopted across the Council's entire planning team and corporate website. We have also been approached by numerous industry colleagues to present and share knowledge, lessons learned and strategic advice on how to inform their community engagement strategies.
- Identifying or Discovering Problems or Opportunities - learning where and how an innovative response is needed
- Generating Ideas or Designing Solutions - finding and filtering ideas to respond to the problem or opportunity
- Developing Proposals - turning ideas into business cases that can be assessed and acted on
- Implementation - making the innovation happen
- Evaluation - understanding whether the innovative initiative has delivered what was needed
- Diffusing Lessons - using what was learnt to inform other projects and understanding how the innovation can be applied in other ways
3 January 2023