Local Government Magazine

Going digital right from the start

District plans are a key planning document for communities but how do councils make them easy to use – or even get residents to have their say during plan reviews? New Plymouth District Council has broken new ground in this area and it’s so far received three awards for its efforts.

A concerted push

Going digital isn’t new for New Plymouth District Council (NPDC) with the District Plan being only the latest product in its Digital Council programme.For the past two years NPDC has won SOLGM awards for its digital work. In 2018 it was the Better Policy and Regulation Category for the digital District Plan.
In 2017 it won the same category (then called the Innovation in Policy or Regulatory Development Award) for a review of waahi tapu and archaeological sites that resulted in a comprehensive online map to which hapu and iwi could add their information.Residents are also able to buy LIMs online rather than needing to go into a council office.
In 2016, NPDC went fully digital for all council meetings. Instead of receiving agenda papers in hard-copy, elected members were given iPads on which they could read and annotate their agendas – a move that saved the printing of half a million A4 sheets of paper
every year.
“Developing a digital council makes a lot of sense for large organisations,” says NPDC group manager strategy Liam Hodgetts.
“Yes, we’re saving money by not going through so much paper but we’re also more efficient with our services to customers.
“It also feeds really well into our push for Zero Waste. Sharpening up one side of our business through developing our digital processes means that we can also walk the talk in another area by showing how a big organisation can cut their waste volume.”

Awards won

• The New Zealand Planning Institute’s (NZPI) Nancy Northcroft Planning Practice Award 2018.
• NZPI’s Best Practice for District Planning Award 2018.
• SOLGM’s Better Regulatory and Policy Award 2018.
• Runner-up for Association of Local Government Information Management: 2018 GIS Project of the Year Award.

Many councils have digital district plans. However, NPDC has gone a step further by doing away entirely with a printed plan that is converted into digital by instead drafting its proposed new District Plan directly as a digital tool.

“Taking that digital-only step has some big advantages,” says NPDC group manager strategy Liam Hodgetts. “The greatest is obviously ease of access. It’s quicker and easier to find the information you’re looking for when it’s searchable online rather than having to page through large files.

“We’re also able to link to related information so you’re more likely to get everything you need in one visit.

“Secondly, it’s been great for generating online public feedback. We’ve used it during the second stage of a three-stage consultation process and we’ve been able to gather public opinions on both its content and how the e-plan itself functions.”

NPDC’s e-plan focuses on the user. In a few clicks they can find information on their property anytime, anywhere.

When the new District Plan has completed its formal consultation process and is eventually live, Liam expects it will be a key tool for planners, builders and architects. Homeowners who want to explore the possibilities around their properties will be able to step through the plan’s requirements with just a few clicks of a mouse.

“‘Easy’ is the key word,” says Liam. “We wanted an e-plan that’s easy to use and easy to understand – and that meant putting in a lot of work to get both the structure and the content of the tool right.

“It’s about making it simpler for the public to do business with us. The more roadblocks we can remove, the better the outcome will be for our community’s development, growth and lifestyle.”

He says this year’s awards are much-deserved recognition of the work that NPDC staff put in to build an online tool that enables better customer experiences and a more engaged community.

What’s in the plan?

District plans guide how councils manage a variety of activities in their community.

For NPDC’s digital District Plan, there are four key areas of change:

Keeping the central city and local business centres thriving. NPDC is seeking to combat ‘commercial spread’ by designating centres of retail and commerce, which will in turn attract more activities and strengthen their attraction to shoppers and visitors. Inner-city housing opportunities will also grow as homeowners are attracted to the increased vibrancy of these areas.

Providing enough housing for about 1000 more people per year. The housing would be of various types for different needs as the district’s community ages. Also, some business areas would be rezoned for housing while some rural land would be earmarked for future urban growth.

Providing enough land in the right locations for industry. This is to keep industry near necessary services, such as key roads, and to reduce the risk of activities clashing with the expectations of nearby residents.

• Managing coastline activities so that natural values aren’t affected and risks (such as from storm surges and erosion) are minimised. Three key towns have been identified for further work on how to manage the risks from coastal flooding, with this work including plans around the development of housing and buildings.

“It’s about planning for the future and making sure our community is in a strong and healthy place in the coming decades,” says Liam.

“The more that we get people involved in the shaping of the plan and understanding how we intend to respond to the challenges our community faces, the better the long-term result will be for our district.”

What’s next?

In its award citation, NZPI said e-planning is a statutory requirement for all councils to move towards and NPDC’s e-plan created significant opportunities for other councils to benefit and leverage from.

“We’ve had interest in this work from across the country and Australia,” says Liam.

“We’re looking forward to continuing to work with other councils, central government and our technology provider, Isovist, to develop and refine the e-plan tool.”

View the e-plan at: newplymouthnz.com/DraftDistrictPlan

This article was first published in the June 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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