National Parks – the challenge of planning for protected environments

Our national parks are renowned worldwide for their beauty drawing millions of visitors every year to enjoy endless opportunities for outdoor exploration or simply the chance to “get away from it all”.    As a tourist, it can be easy to overlook the fact that, beyond their many attractions, the Parks are also home to local communities and businesses. Striking the balance between the legal requirements to promote enjoyment and conserve natural beauty, wildlife and heritage and local development needs creates many challenges for the parks’ planning authorities.

Agile customer, the Lake District, is the UK’s largest national park and a World Heritage site, attracting over 16 million visitors every year.  Whilst tourism is a boon for the local economy, it creates pressure on infrastructure and affects housing affordability given the high proportion of second homes.  The rural nature of the park also means that there is a limited supply of previously developed land and limited capacity to accommodate new development.

Planning proposals in any area can be contentious, and, given the special responsibilities of National Parks generally, it’s more vital still that the planning process is transparent to the local population.  The Agile system helps by streamlining administration of the neighbour consultation process and providing residents with easy access to application details and the ability to comment on them online.

The same standards of transparency are equally important in Enforcements, often misunderstood and viewed by critics as the heavy hand of planning law.  But Enforcement is just as much about offering guidance as it is about prosecuting for failure to comply.  For some National Parks’ planning authorities with fewer staff than their urban counterparts, having “always on” mobile access to their visit/inspection reports will save them valuable time and help to ensure that they can cover the ground.

“Multi-purpose” functionality means that the same technology can be used to report on envirocrime such as fly tipping, sadly becoming a familiar sight as unscrupulous traders and private individuals take advantage of the remoteness of these areas of outstanding natural beauty to dump illegal and sometimes hazardous waste.

As Lake District and Agile customer Snowdonia are mountainous, some areas experience poor mobile coverage, as is the case with our most “remote” customer, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, making the work of inspections that much more challenging.   The ability to work offline means that officers will be able to continue completing visit reports using our Agile@WORK mobile solution with syncing to the authorities’ back office Agile systems when connection is restored.

The Welsh government in particular is promoting cloud computing to facilitate remote working, not only for efficiency to combat decreasing staff numbers, but also to make the savings dictated by a £0.5m decrease in the 2018/19 budget with further cuts on the cards in the next three years.

Thinking ahead, Snowdonia and Pembrokeshire Coast are scheduled to make the move from our on-premise planning solution to the Agile hosted platform, which will help them to achieve savings by reducing dependence on in-house hardware. The implementation of Agile GIS will also help to reduce the licence overheads associated with proprietary GIS solutions, providing their teams with easy-to-use mapping and spatial analysis.  This makes it easier for case officers to identify neighbours and add any consultees that have not been automatically selected earlier on in the applications workflow.

And, in the near future, enabling the public to “visualise” areas for potential development via online mapping should help to reassure local communities that national parks planning authorities are always mindful of the need to balance demands for growth with their duty to conserve.