The Government’s proposed “once in a generation” reform of England’s planning system places heavy emphasis on streamlining and modernising the enabling technology. For Alex Wrottesley, the role of the Property Technology (PropTech) sector and the move to digitisation will be critical to success
Following the publication of the Government’s ‘Planning for the Future’ White Paper during the summer of 20201, the Planning Bill is now moving forward, following its formal announcement in the Queen’s Speech in May.
As part of the Speech, Her Majesty confirmed that the reforms “Will help more people to own their own home” and that “laws to modernise the planning system will enable more homes to be built”.
Joining-up the process
The Planning Bill encompasses several key components that are all designed to create a more streamlined and joined-up process. In particular, there are three specific pillars that deserve a spotlight: planning for ‘development’, ‘beautiful and sustainable places’, and ‘infrastructure and connected places’.
As I see it, the bedrock that joins everything together and will make or break the overall success of these reforms is digitisation.
A digital planning system is fundamental to achieving the policy outcomes sought in each of these pillars. This will involve removing the reliance on documents and paper; replacing non-standardised legacy systems; forming widely agreed digital inter-connections, and breaking down the barriers of departmentalised silos.
By migrating what is a predominantly analogue service to digital, and making planning information easier to find, understand, share and engage with, we will all ultimately benefit.
In early June, the first major step in this direction was taken by Housing Minister, Christopher Pincher, who announced a £1.1 million fund to start testing the use of digital tools and data standards across 10 local authority areas.
This particular pathfinder project will consider what the digital transformation of local plans could look like, and this includes the introduction of online, map-based local plans that make it easier for people to understand and to engage with.
The focus of this first step is to test how existing local plans would translate into the new digitised approach, with the goal focused on replacing long text documents, with categorised, interactive maps with appropriate data annotations.
The use of interactive geospatial technology, real-time data, high quality virtual simulations and standardised data definitions creates the opportunity to deliver a positive shift in both the speed and quality of decision making. They will make planning more collaborative and accessible, ensuring that all outcomes are founded on the most current, complete, relevant and accurate data.
Time for change
If you consider what the process looks like today, while online access to information is possible through local authority portals, the way data is available is inconsistent, not searchable or seamless and often confusing.
On top of this, the systems within planning teams generally reside on separate platforms, preventing cross-referencing of data by staff, councillors and indeed anyone viewing the information from outside an authority.
A digitised, data-led and integrated system would make it easier for everyone to find the detail of applications or local plans, to see the extend of a proposed or approved application with drawings or maps and offer the ability to directly respond with feedback.
We’re hopeful that the reforms will be the ‘beginning of the end ‘of planning application notices being placed on community lamp posts in plastic wallets!
Digitisation will also deliver huge benefits to the development and distribution of local plans. Making local plans digitally interactive across the nation would standardise processes, offer greater accessibility, collaboration and community engagement in decisions that may impact the local area in which they live for years to come.
Overhauling the system
All of this will of course come at a cost, and therefore it will need considerable commitment and innovation from both the public and private sectors to overhaul the system. The good news is that much of the data is already available. For example, environmental and flood risk data is routinely provided for major planning applications, yet today the results of these, and the influence on decision making is largely unused in the local plan system, mostly as a result of the lack of integration or cross-referencing between systems.
Combining local plans and planning application data on one publicly-available geospatial platform would deliver real benefits, but the more significant the reforms are, the more crucial it will be to ensure the underlying data for decision making is authoritative, complete, accurate and available for scrutiny.
Fundamentally, in order to realise the government’s ambitions for a digitally interactive system, suitable funding must also be dedicated to making sure that not only are the rights technologies and software used, but importantly, investment is made in the people and skills required to operate and manage these systems, particularly in the geospatial space. Centralised IT projects are hard for good reason, and the best approach here is via collaboration and co-operative standards across the industry.
With all the right ingredients in place, the experience for everyone should become far richer, modern and accessible. This will not only benefit local authorities and planners day-to-day, but also have wider-reaching benefits for the country financially, economically, socially and environmentally, with swifter decisioning made possible. It really will place planning at the heart of the communities it is there to serve, which in my book can only be a good thing for us all.
Alex Wrottesley is Managing Director of Landmark Geodata, part of Landmark Information Group, the land and property data specialists headquartered in Exeter, Devon (https://www.landmark.co.uk/geo...;