Where are we now?
Some local planning authorities are already using technology to streamline their processes and enhance their user experiences. For example, several now have interactive GIS (Geographic Information System) maps on which you can view both planning applications and local plan policies in any given area. The benefit of this form of technology is easy to see, it’s clearly a much more user friendly tool than having to search through reams of local policy or haphazardly cross referencing various postcodes to ascertain planning applications. Indeed rather than having to compare planning permission outlines with PDF maps, you can clearly see what impacts the area in question.
Some local authorities are also trialing software which helps to modernise the back office planning system. Namely by:
- Flagging relevant constraints and policies when submitting an application;
- Automating pre-application queries to ensure the correct information is gathered in an easy to assess format; and
- Automating the validation process to decrease the workload on the local authority and reduce the chance of human error.
Another way in which local authorities are seen to be becoming more efficient is in the electronic submission of consultation responses which makes it easier for them and others to deal with responses. This, in turn, potentially helps to speed up the process with which new policy documents can be brought forward.
Hopefully, these advances will also help to provide certainty for developers as planning constraints become easier to identify early on in the application process and applications themselves become easier to submit and track.
What can we expect in the future?
The planning system has come a long way in recent years but is arguably still behind many other sectors when it comes to technology, and can be operationally cumbersome. Both the Planning for the Future White Paper and its successor the Levelling Up the United Kingdom White Paper talk of the need for new planning software to bring “the system into the 21st Century” and it is hoped that an increase in digitalisation will ultimately result in an increase in community participation. The current draft of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which is working its way through the House of Lords, regulates the use of planning data software, something which has not been done before in England.
The accompanying Levelling-up policy paper also hints at wider developments including data-driven software to handle information relating to planning applications (much like that discussed above) and engagement tools to make the planning process more accessible for communities. This is all quite high level at the moment but it is encouraging to see the Government investing in real improvements to the system.
Where does this leave us?
We’ve touched on a number of ways in which the planning system is evolving but these advancements are not without their own risks. There will always be a need to involve participants through a range of channels, balancing any digital forms with more traditional engagement to avoid alienating those members of society who may not be able to utilise, or may not be comfortable with, online engagement. There are also calls to trial and develop several different systems, rather than being tempted by the apparent lure of a single national digital planning system. This would create an element of competition within the digital planning space to ensure that the best, most cost-effective systems, continue to develop.
Ultimately, there’s some work to be done before we have a truly digitalised planning system but a world in which it is commonplace for software to process planning applications and where developers engage with users of a development on the ground does not seem too far away.
Authored by Rosie Shields.