Planning White Paper
Last year's planning white paper set out the government's proposals to introduce a modern, tech-led planning system

Queen’s Speech: ‘significant opportunity’ in digital planning

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Karl Tomusk

Confirmation in the Queen’s Speech that the UK government will pursue laws to modernise the planning system were cautiously welcomed by the property industry, although the specifics of those plans remain unclear.

A brief mention of the planning bill, which is expected to be introduced in the autumn, was included in the government’s legislative proposals set out by the Queen on Tuesday.

Based on last year’s planning white paper, the bill will likely introduce greater use of digital technology to the UK’s planning system.

The white paper set out a “radical, digital-first approach” to planning, proposing digital tools to make it easier for people to engage with the process, access interactive maps and understand what exactly is proposed where.

Local plans, it said, should be visual, map-based and standardised on the latest digital technology.

While digital technology has been used in planning for more than 20 years, Alex Wrottesley, managing director of Landmark Geodata, said that important legacy data is not interactive and sits on separate platforms, which prevents cross-referencing.

He said there was a “significant opportunity” to modernise the system and combine data from individual systems.

Wrottesley added: “In exploring the planning reform proposals for digitised, web-based local plans, we welcome the aims to increase the use of digital technology within and across the whole system, ensuring planning can become more accessible and streamlined to everyone.

“We believe, however, that for digitalisation to succeed, it needs to be part of a wider strategy for technology to be used to improve the speed and quality of planning decisions, based on comprehensive, relevant, up-to-date, consistent and above all, accurate data.”

“We fully applaud the digital ambitions: 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 the challenges will require significant commitment and innovation from both the public and private sectors to overhaul the system.”

The green response

Julie Hirigoyen, CEO of UKGBC, said: “A key test of the government’s commitment to a green recovery will be whether the new planning bill really delivers the better designed and environmentally friendly communities that the Queen’s Speech promises.

“Any changes under the new planning system must support the delivery of net-zero places and nature’s recovery, and not simply remove perceived red tape to speed up the delivery of development.”

Aside from planning, Hirigoyen said she welcomed the return of the environmental bill, which made its third appearance in the Queen’s Speech today. The bill includes legally-binding targets, which restore nature and biodiversity, tackle air pollution, and establishes an independent Office for Environmental Protection.

She said: “UKGBC welcomes confirmation that the environmental bill will return and bring forward legally binding targets on the environment, something UKGBC has long called for. However, the delivery of these overarching goals must be supported by binding interim targets to ensure sufficient action is taken early and consistently.”

Awaiting clarity

The white paper included a raft of proposals, some of which have proven to be controversial, such as the scrapping of Section 106 agreements, setting out planning conditions and financial contributions to councils that developers must meet, and introducing zoned pro- or anti-development areas. What will make it into the eventual bill, however, is not clear, but there is an expectation of significant changes, presumably led by a digital strategy.

Marnix Elsenaar, partner and head of planning at Addleshaw Goddard, said: “The bill is likely to require local authorities to allocate land either for growth, so that new homes, schools, offices and shops will get a fast-track to planning approval, or for protection. Rumour has it that a third ‘regeneration’ zone is being considered.

“Whether other elements of the white paper, such as the fast track for beauty and a new infrastructure levy will make their way into the bill remains to be seen. What we can say with certainty is that the bill will be a big step on the road away from the development control system that we’re used to, towards a US-style zonal system that front-loads community engagement to the plan-making stage and provides a national and local design code that sets the parameters for what you can build.”

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