Bedford Case Study
Bedford Case Study
In the spring of 2020 the planning policy team at Bedford Borough Council chose OpusMap and OpusConsult to support its emerging Local Plan Review. Both software are integral to helping Bedford planners digitise and manage key stages of the Local Plan process.
Onboarding and training were provided remotely during the first Covid-19 lockdown, all in time for Bedford’s planning team to run their issues and options public consultation, including a call for sites, and which ran from 14th July to 4th September.
Kim Wilson, Team Leader of Planning Policy at Bedford, explains the fundamental challenge of preparing a Local Plan at a time when her team members were often having to work from home and remotely.
Writing and making a local plan is a resource hungry process at the best of times so this time around we wanted it to be as efficient as possible. There is an awful lot of work to do and data to organise and analyse; in relation to assessing potential sites for example. We were embarking on the process of writing a new local plan and the date of the first issues and options consultation and call for sites was rapidly approaching. We were looking for ways to make the consultation and the call for sites processes as resource efficient as possible.
This is where OpusMap and OpusConsult came in. Both the issues and options document and the call for sites submission form were published to the new consultation public portal, itself designed and built in OpusConsult. Bedford’s call for sites included the first public use of OpusMap’s new browser-based site drawing tool and the first integration of OpusMap’s interactive mapping viewer with OpusConsult’s upgraded custom form builder module.
Being able to offer the public the opportunity to upload their full site details in one place – including plotting the site boundary and inputting key information as usable data along with other options such as uploading attachments – was a great time saving, for us as planners, for our Borough Councillors, Local Councils and for the public.
Using interactive mapping as part of the submission process also meant we were able to display related spatial data such as constraints. Relevant map layers were made available to online users plotting their sites which provided them with a helpful mapping context while inputting their site details.
Online engagement isn’t always the most convenient or accessible option for the public. Many will choose to submit their representations and site maps on paper or as PDF attachments to an email. Planners therefore need the right digital tools and resources to hand to ensure they can process ALL representations as efficiently and as quickly as possible as they come in, even if original submissions are not in useful data formats.
For sites we received via the more traditional sources the team were able to input the information into the same system the public used to submit online. All submitted data, no matter how it was received or in what format, was altogether in one place and, as importantly, was accessible to all team members from wherever and whenever they were working. As a result I could be confident there was consistency in how that data was being assessed, reported and presented. Both OpusMap and OpusConsult gave us the necessary tools to convert the important data we needed from emails, PDFs and paper submissions.
When we published our site assessments for stakeholders to access the data this was published from the system and accessed by them interactively. Members of the public will be able to search and access the assessed site and form data via an interactive map, for example.
This interactive service has been widely appreciated by the public and by Council members.
With the release of the Government’s White Paper on Planning in August 2020, digitising the local plan process and making maps interactive will potentially become key performance indicators very soon. Bedford Borough Council’s planning team are all too aware of how working digitally and interactively benefits all stakeholders in the local plan process, not just planners. Kim remembers what it was like before OpusMap and OpusConsult were available.
Previously we would produce a series of PDF maps displaying the distribution of submitted sites but these maps would be created independently of the full site details because the systems that generated the information weren’t connected. To view the site form and information the user would have needed to go to a separate link and then look through a list to find it.
Now, with the map, site and representation data accessible to us in one place, accessing the right information is much quicker and efficient as is preparing that information for the public to consume interactively via their preferred device.
My team is now working on adding site assessment information using a custom built proforma we’ve created in OpusConsult. So now OpusMap links to as much data as we need it to – all data at all stages on each site, all in one place! We now know that when we come to consult again in 2021 we’ll be starting from a much stronger position.
Both Blue Fox Technology, the developers of OpusMap, and JDi Solutions, the developers of OpusConsult, are working collaboratively with each other and with Local Council planning teams to address the digital challenges ahead. This collaborative approach ensures resources and software functions are optimised to help Local Councils address their need to innovate and be able to respond to changes in the planning system. Against a backdrop of limited budgets, the common objective is to empower planners to digitally stay in control of what they know best: the local plan process.