Communicating complex planning systems

Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities

hands placing sticky notes on a wall

We worked with DLUHC to map the UK’s planning system

We worked with the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) to understand and map the UK’s planning system.

The department was beginning a series of departmental and planning system transformations, and wanted to understand the reality of the planning system as a whole, so it could understand the pain points, and also how different systems interconnected and impacted one another. We supported them during this process and created a set of resources that are still used today.

Through the work detailed below we were able to help DLUHC become more informed and connected by seeing dependencies of different systems, more empowered through using visuals to make good decisions and in more control by enabling people to engage with information at a level of detail that worked for them.  

Representing how these systems work

This project was unique for us in that it wasn’t about delivering a digital product or service. It was about communicating complex systems, and presenting research and user insights back to DLUHC. We produced a series of tools, insights and resources that DLUHC could draw from to build their understanding of the problem spaces, and help influence and inform future decision making.

We recognised quite early on that the planning system was a web of interdependent yet intrinsically connected small systems. This can make it difficult for all teams within DLUHC to understand the whole landscape and the individual processes outside of their team, or how changes to the planning system might have a knock on effect on various working systems. 

We produced a number of outputs across the two phases of work, all driven by user and stakeholder insight or research. The outputs included a set of interactive personas and policy insight cards, a story map framed from the perspective of a piece of land travelling through the planning system, a set of typology data driven insight cards and a roll out timeline focused on a potential to-be sequencing of the reform plans.

How did we do it

This work took place in 2 phases. Phase 1 focused on generating an understanding of the planning system and playing back how the proposed reforms might impact users, various DLUHC planning teams, and communities. Following phase 1’s success, Phase 2 focused on consolidating information and creating tools to help DLUHC Policy teams to think about unintended consequences on users, and help them make good decisions on how they might roll out the planning reforms.

Like any user-centred project, we began all work by speaking with users and experts in the planning system. This included local authority Planning Officers, Developers and Statutory Consultees e.g. the environment agency. This gave us a view of the practical experience of planning policy and guidance, versus the theoretical understanding of it. 

The core thing we did to help DLUHC was to absorb, understand and connect lots of complex information in order to communicate it in ways that made it easier for policy makers and stakeholders to have constructive discussions, and make more informed decisions. Below are 4 examples of how we did this:

1. Communicating interconnectedness

To help communicate the interconnectivity within the planning system, and help DLUHC teams visualise the whole planning landscape, we created an interactive ecosystem tool. This tool was made up with a set of 24 ‘Chapter Cards’ – each card showed a deep dive view of parts of the planning system (such as environmental impact assessments, local plans, evidence), and explored insights into; pain points, successful experiences, data points, impacts and root causes. This tool allowed users to zoom in and out to different levels of detail, and also to move between connected systems and start to visualise how different aspects of the planning system worked together towards an outcome.

Interactive ecosytem tool

“[I’d recommend you for] anything quite complex – the fact you got to grips with the planning system in 18 weeks which isn’t much time to produce the amount of stuff you produced.” 

Dr Jen Manuel, DLUHC

2. Choosing a different central character

The complexity of different roles, processes and potential nuances within the planning system meant it was difficult to fully represent dependencies, frustrations and potential risks across a user journey. So we defined a story where the central character was a piece of land. 

This enabled us to show how users, policies and systems impacted that piece of land on its journey towards becoming a new building. It also served as an opportunity to summarise the most common pain points, touchpoints and dependencies.

Image shows a story where the central character was a piece of land.

3. Showing the bigger context

Part of our second phase of work focussed on further detailed research with each policy team to understand their reforms and plans for implementation. These insights informed a first draft of the full 5 year implementation timeline for all policy areas. Following this we brought together 50+ people from DLUHC planning policy teams to review and discuss their current individual implementation plans. We asked them to review their plan in the context of other policy areas’ timelines. For some, this was the first time they’d seen their plan in the broader context. It helped the whole team to spot where:

  • things wouldn’t align
  • dependencies would fall down
  • users would struggle with too much change, or too little time for change 
image showing review of planned reforms


4. Using data to communicate the impact on users

We wanted to support DLUHC in understanding how reforms might impact communities and users, and discover they might be able to identify areas across the country where additional work, support or care might be needed throughout the reforms.

Using readily available data about England such as; population, job density and green belt presence, we produced a series of maps showing different environmental factors across the country. We combined these data maps with user insight and research findings to bring to light the impacts reform might have on areas with these environmental factors.

maps showing different environmental factors across the country

Similarly, in phase 1 we created a series of user personas to visually communicate the experience different users have of the planning system, their view of individual systems, and where the reforms might impact them most.

user persona of community or public
user persona of an SME developer

Lasting impact

This piece of work has had continued impact and effects within the DLUHC team with their planning reform work. Our Story of Land mapping output served as a great introduction to the Planning System, and was included in the Day 1 pack for the new Secretary of State, Michael Gove when he joined MHCLG in 2021. The set of User Personas created are used day to day within working teams to frame problems and understand the experiences from users.

Ultimately one of the most valuable outcomes from this work was facilitating inclusive and engaging opportunities to get the right people in the virtual room together to have open and transparent conversations. For many, this was the first time they’d ever spoken to these other teams, or had a chance to get into the details of their plans. Working collaboratively with policy teams, and providing visual tools to support decision making meant they were able to continue working in this way once the research phase concluded.