Planning applications in a digital mapping system


Author: Tristram Cary, chair of Geoxphere Ltd

One of the local (parish and town) councils' essential duties is to analyse and comment on planning applications. This vital task is made much easier if the planning applications can be loaded into a digital mapping system and analysed against all the relevant constraints, such as local plans and flood risk. 

One of the goals of NALC’s forward plan is to enable local (parish and town) councils to interact with higher-tier authorities on equal terms. This is particularly important for planning, a local council’s most important task. Planning for new development is a very complex and highly emotive task. Everybody accepts that new residential, commercial and infrastructure development is required. Yet the counter-pressures of preserving the countryside, encouraging biodiversity, using trees to sequester carbon and maintaining the character of towns and villages inevitably lead to fierce local opposition to almost every development scheme. Often a local council finds itself working with its higher-tier authority to fight influential developers and landowners whose motivation may be to maximise their profits at the expense of the community's best interests.

At other times, a local council may find itself in opposition with its own higher tier authority, say a district, over a proposed development which best meets the district-level local plan, in the district's view. But, in the local council’s view, it is not in its best interest and perhaps not compliant with its neighbourhood plan. Fierce opposition of this sort is a natural part of the current planning process, so every local council must be fully equipped to fight its corner and not rely on the expertise and support of higher-tier councils. 

A digital mapping system is essential for analysing any proposed plan. Without a digital mapping system, local council staff cannot efficiently analyse a proposal against all the relevant constraint data, such as local plans, conservation areas, flood risk, SPAs, heritage issues, habitat issues and SSSIs.

The effective use of a digital mapping system requires higher-tier authorities to publish their local plan, planning applications and other relevant district-level data in a GIS format, which can be read by the local council’s digital mapping system. Most higher-tier authorities do not yet do this. They typically provide their maps and planning applications in a pdf format that cannot be loaded into a digital mapping system, which leaves local councillors at a considerable disadvantage. Not only do councillors have to manage their analysis ‘by eye’, but it also hinders the clear presentation of evidence, for instance, a map showing a planning application polygon overlaid onto flood risk zones and local plan conservation areas.

It appears that some higher-tier authorities deliberately withhold GIS-compatible data from their local councils because they do not want them to be effective opponents in planning debates. This is more than a suspicion - a few years ago, I attended a county-level meeting of district GIS officers to propose that they published their planning data to their councils in a GIS format, and they mostly thought this was a dangerous idea. But, it seems that attitudes are changing, and most higher-tier authorities are now happy to publish their data to local councils in a GIS format, provided that this is quick and easy to do. 

To encourage higher-tier authorities to publish their data to local councils in a GIS format, Parish Online provides a free XMAP licence to any higher-tier authority for the purpose. Also, Parish Online will offer free support to the higher tier authority to automatically load planning data into the XMAP account and share it with all Parish Online user accounts. 

A recent success story is the South Somerset District Council (SSDC), where Alison Nidd (GIS Case Officer) now provides all planning data to local councils via the SSDC XMAP account. The local councils found this data so helpful that they asked for more, and, in response, SSDC now makes all relevant datasets available to local councils by default – there are 80 datasets so far, with more on the way. Alison said: “Using XMAP South Somerset District Council can share GIS data with Parish Online quickly and easily. We source and share the latest versions of GIS data to enable our parishes to have the best quality data to help them make better evidence-based decisions”. Chris Edwards (Ansford Parish, South Somerset) said: “Having this data in a GIS format has significantly improved the way we utilise planning application details, providing our council with a straightforward and efficient way of recording, updating and distributing information. Our thanks to Alison for releasing the additional datasets.”

Why not ask your higher-tier authority to provide your planning data in a GIS format? And if you are not yet a Parish Online user, a 30-day free trial of Parish Online is available. For any other questions or comments, please contact .

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