Planning notices tied to lamp posts are one of the most visible functions of local government. But how many people engage with the system, or can even fathom out how it works?

Unless you live very close to the site of a planning application, you need to keep your eyes peeled for those notices, or scour local papers to find out about plans that could change your neighbourhood.

Indeed, councils in England are still obliged to spend money placing public notices in local newspapers, despite their plummeting circulations.

A team at Lancaster University has been involving councils and members of the public in developing a smartphone app which will tell residents about nearby planning applications, and allow them to discuss and respond to them.

Open Planning is being put together by The Creative Exchange, a programme which brings businesses and researchers together to work on digital projects.

Researcher Lara Salinas, who is working on the project, says: “There’s a lack of engagement with citizens in planning. We noticed there are three stages – notification, information, and engagement. But to be notified, you have to be quite active and look for notices.”

Map of applications

The app, which is still at an early stage, displays planning applications on a map, and allows users to call up information on them.

You can also be notified of applications in an area you’re interested in and share them through social media, and make submissions to planning officers.

Users can also just leave comments for other people to read – a facility that’s designed to enable residents to ask questions and engage as a community with the applications.

“We originally thought people would be able to question local authorities, but they can’t really engage on planning applications, so we thought citizens could provide answers,” Salinas says.

The app, which has been built by Red Ninja Studios, was recently tested using data from Liverpool City Council, and volunteers from social enterprise Engage Liverpool.

But as planning applications tend to be presented as PDF files, that brought some difficulties. “The data didn’t come in a format we expected, and was mainly text-based – it’s difficult to take pictures from PDFs,” Salinas adds.

Getting feeds of data

Individual councils also present planning information in different ways, with that data held by third parties.

“The main problem is that the information fields vary from council to council,” Salinas says.

The team have proved the product works – now the next step is to get planning data as APIs from local councils, so it can display a live feed of information rather than information that’s been manually scraped from council websites.

Those notices tied to lamp posts aren’t going to go away soon. But if Open Planning takes off, then they’ll be attracting some more attention in the future.