Modernising planning publicity to reach a broader audience

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Watford Borough Council piloted a digital portal for the public to view and comment on major planning applications, using Commonplace, and later, Esri. With Esri, the Council also used the new portal to allow members of the public to register to receive planning alerts by email for a specific area (as well as some new map tools).

Watford added QR codes to their publicity for all planning applications and used Vu.City to explore the use of a 3D model for public engagement with planning proposals.

This project allowed the council to explore the potential of how publicity for planning applications could be modernised to reach a broader audience and be more engaging for members of the public. Whilst new engagement methods such as social media were used, the council also explored how traditional engagement tools, such as a site notice on a lamppost, could be enhanced with visual images and QR codes, to better engage members of the public.

Screenshots of Watford's project outputs including 3D maps, maps of upcoming sites for development, Newspaper notices on planning (old version without QR code alongside updated version with QR code and links to more info online) and a leaflet showcasing a QR code to find out more about development before it takes place.

Project goals

Watford’s aims for the pilot were to:

  • make it easier for citizens to find out about new planning applications, without the traditional reliance of waiting to receive a letter from the council, or stumbling across a site notice or newspaper advert 
  • remove unintentional barriers that prevent people from engaging with the planning process, making the planning system more accessible for the public
  • increase the quantity and quality of community participation from a broader audience

Effective approaches

‘We’re delighted to have achieved several legacy products which we will continue to deliver and promote – including an online planning alerts system, major planning applications platform, QR codes on all planning publicity, and planning information map tools.’ – Carmel Huntley, project lead, Watford Borough Council

Developing visually engaging digital technology

Watford made planning publicity more visually engaging, using images, QR codes, and a 3D model to show new developments. It was quicker and easier for people to access and understand proposed developments this way, especially compared to the existing portal, which is heavy on lists of data. 93% of people Watford surveyed said that they liked having the option to view planning information on an interactive map and 84% said they were likely to use the new maps. 83% of people surveyed said that QR codes would enhance the engagement process for them.

Driving engagement with paid social media posts

Watford ran a 3-month digital marketing campaign for its planning alerts service, including using social media, as well as posters, neighbour letters and site notices which directed users to the registration site via QR codes. The site experienced its highest number of visitors following paid social media posts – especially with Facebook, but also with Twitter, LinkedIn, Next Door and Instagram – with a spike of 400 on the first day, compared to a typical baseline of under 50 per day. 

Creating a hybrid between digital and traditional engagement

Watford received feedback from the community that although they welcomed digital tools, they also still wanted the option of traditional offline forms of engagement, and support in using new technologies. Following feedback, Watford updated its planning publicity to include instructions on how to use QR codes. ‘We’re adding in choice, not taking it away,’ says Carmel Huntley who managed the project. 

Building a skilled project team

Investing in professionals to do communications and reporting on behalf of the council was key, and it was vital that the project manager was a planning expert, since software options did not always fit in with the legislation requirements for planning publicity.

Getting buy-in from stakeholders

‘Brief and include your head of portfolio for planning and key stakeholders from an early stage – later, because our portfolio holder was already aware and supportive of the project this helped when we rolled it out to all members’ says Carmel.

Surprises and challenges

Lack of integration between IT systems

‘At least 2 of our products worked externally but would not work when logged in via our VPN due to internal IT firewalls,’ says Carmel ‘This required IT resources and expertise to resolve and took some time.’

Managing online community comments

The new planning application hub allowed comments to be made live online, which led to a feeling of risk of potential negativity in social media comments that made the project team think carefully about its use of social media to publicise major planning applications. Yet overall, social media was successful in bringing traffic to the new sites and the level of engagement from social media posts far surpassed other outreach methods.


80% of users said Watford Borough Council’s new digital tools would allow them to access and understand planning information online more quickly and easily.

Increasing engagement 

The new planning applications portal attracted more than 2500 visitors in its first two months. 37% of people Watford surveyed said they would not be likely to engage with major planning applications without the new digital approach. 80% said it would allow them to access and understand planning information online more quickly and easily.

309 members of the public signed up for planning alerts using the new service and 100% said that receiving planning alerts by email (as opposed to traditional letters, site notices or newspaper advertisements) made it easier for them to find out about planning applications. 75% said receiving alerts would make them more likely to get involved with the council’s planning service.

Upskilling staff 

Staff have learned new digital skills, one saying: ‘My knowledge has improved as part of this, my confidence and my future ambition. I didn’t know what an API was [before]…now I understand.’ (API stands for application programming interfaces – the way different computer applications communicate with one another). 

One piece of advice

The importance of IT and data integration

‘Be aware of opportunities for APIs and open data before procuring suppliers – we’ll be more specific with our requirements in future,’ says Carmel ‘And think about possibilities for integration before embarking on a project.’ In some cases, IT integration with back office systems can help avoid or alleviate the manual export process of sharing data between suppliers.

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