Alex Wrottesley Landmark Information

Planning reforms: a switch from analogue to digital

Proposals by the UK government to overhaul the planning system have digital running through them – but do they go far enough, asks Alex Wrottesley of Landmark Information.

In August, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government issued its ‘Planning for the Future’ whitepaper, which encouraged responses on a package of proposals that consider ways the planning system in England can be reformed.

The overall aims of the paper are to consider how the planning process can be streamlined and modernised, with improved outcomes on design and sustainability, reformed developer contributions and to ultimately ensure that more land is available for development, where it is needed.

With a system that currently is said to be reliant on ‘documents and not data’, a significant focus of the consultation examines how the current system is based on 20th-century technology and legacy software, which has created a burden on the sector with repetitive tasks.

Ahead of the close of the consultation, we gathered together a number of industry representatives to discuss this whitepaper in a live online event. This included MHCLG, Atkins, RICS, ABI and BRE, and all agreed that data standardisation, industry-wide collaboration and community engagement should be key areas to focus on.

Paul Maltby, chief digital officer of MHCLG confirmed that while there’s much around policy changes, design, technology, digital services and data, technology and data is really at the heart of this.

Maltby stated: “There are four main areas where we see data and digital services having a big change. The first is community engagement; enabling people to become more involved in the decision-making process for our towns through digital services, which will make this more engaging. The second is Local Plans; these set the rules for what will happen however finding and interpreting the rules can be hard.

“The third aspect is in Plan Making and planning decisions; this is the case management of plans and how the overall process is managed. Currently people struggle with a system of uncertainty of extracting data. Finally, PropTech; the UK’s position in a global PropTech market is fascinating and we see this as an important part in fuelling the change in our market.

“The focus is to switch [the planning system] from analogue to digital – with machine-readable formats that include geospatial boundaries; essentially changing documents and words into data and code. We don’t see the role of government as building lots of services but instead as a platform, where trusted, authoritative data is made available for industry to build information or digital services.

“Currently, around 50% of household applications are submitted with errors and planning officers have to spend their time responding to correct submissions.  We feel this is a system that can be fixed.”

From Landmark’s perspective, we submitted a formal response to the white paper, welcoming the aims of the reforms. However, we suggested that digitalisation needs to be part of a wider strategy for technology to be used to improve the speed and quality of planning decisions, based on relevant, up-to-date, consistent and accurate data.

Digital technology in the planning system has been used for twenty or more years but important legacy data is not interactive and currently sits on separate platforms, preventing cross referencing.

As we see it, there is now a significant opportunity to modernise planning services by combining the data available on these individual systems.  Furthermore, the use of interactive geospatial technology, real time information, high quality virtual simulation and standardising digital data offers the chance to enable a major positive shift in the speed and quality of decision making.

Data used in the planning system is often valuable for other services, businesses, organisations and individuals.  At present, it is held by individual data owners and is sometimes not necessarily free to access. We believe that rationalisation of Government and statutory undertaker datasets would therefore benefit both the planning system and those wishing to access the information from a broader perspective.

Ambitions for a digitally interactive system bring with it other considerations of course – including the requirement of significant funding plus the need for wide-spread staff training to address current skill shortages particularly in relation to trained geospatial users.

In addition, to ensure implementation and the aspirations of the Planning White Paper are to be met, we believe a statutory requirement will need to be introduced alongside suitable funding commitments and support for a coordinated UK wide roll-out.

Ultimately, we applaud the ambitions set out in the Government’s white paper.  Making local plans digitally interactive across the nation would standardise processes, offer greater accessibility, collaboration and community engagement in planning applications and decisions.  However, we also appreciate that for these ambitions to be realised, it will require significant commitment and innovation from both the public and private sectors to overhaul the system.

Long-term success will create a more accessible, streamlined system for the property market benefiting the nation as a whole, financially, economically, socially and environmentally.  We await the outcome of the consultation with great anticipation.

Alex Wrottesley is managing director  of environment and mapping at Landmark Information

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