Time to bring planning into the digital age

The government must digitise the Land Registry and the Planning Portal to enable seamless access to public data, which can support innovation for companies looking to improve the urban environment, writes Mike Derbyshire

This month, the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, announced “once-in-a-generation” changes to the UK’s planning system. While sweeping, the changes were not as radical as many would have hoped for, especially when it comes to harnessing the power of data and technology.

Britain’s planning regime, largely unchanged since the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, is currently not fit for purpose and while a welcome step in the right direction, the proposed changes set out this month by the government do not go far enough.

Fundamentally, our planning system is analogue and has been carried into the digital age largely unchanged. The result is excessive bureaucracy and consequential delays that have left us without the housing or infrastructure we need.

Yet it does not have to be this way. Technology has changed other disciplines and industries beyond recognition over the last 10-15 years and resulted in huge success stories.

Our planning system is analogue and has been carried into the digital age largely unchanged. The result is excessive bureaucracy and consequential delays that have left us without the housing or infrastructure we need.– Mike Derbyshire, Bidwells

BIM success shows the way

Take design as an example. Building Information Modelling (BIM) has enabled architects, designers and engineers to create digital twins of projects and capture data like never before. The technology has enabled these different disciplines to not only design-out defects, but also help reduce levels of waste and embodied carbon as precise estimates of materials needed for each development, whether it be residential or commercial, can be generated.

To deliver better-designed environments and make the process less hassle for all stakeholders involved – especially local communities and investors – the UK’s planning system must better embrace technology and data.

To begin with, the government needs to double down on its commitment to digitising HM Land Registry.

The benefits of doing so will be far reaching. Digital services could mean housing developers register land more easily, conveyancers transfer ownership and interests faster, and citizens get simpler access to the information they need to inform their important decisions.

Second, the government must also look to digitise the Planning Portal, the primary website through which planning applications are made.

Currently 90% of all planning applications go through the site, which is an intermediary between applications, local authorities and the public. However, technology has now well and truly overtaken it – and did so some time ago. The problem is that it still operates by applicants uploading large amounts of digital versions of paper documents – whether they be building plans, masterplans or detailed reports of anything from traffic impact to biodiversity.

Avoiding delays

This not only causes delays and confusion, but also restricts the ability among local authorities and investors to collect Open Data that can help identify trends and solutions. If an investor or developer is able to clearly see that a certain use class is in high demand but short supply, it will help leverage private investment into regions as they look to plug those gaps. The ability for stakeholders and investors to make evidence-based decisions is a win-win for everyone.

Robert Jenrick is not the first housing secretary to try to reform the planning system, and he certainly (as well as hopefully) won’t be the last. It’s in dire need of innovation.

Covid-19 has proven that radical changes are possible. Virtual planning committees, first held by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to mitigate the risks posed by delays and social distancing guidelines in March, are proof of this.

If we want to encourage investment into the UK economy at a time when it is going to need it more than ever, technology and data capture must sit at the heart of the UK’s reformed planning system.

Mike Derbyshire is head of planning at Bidwells.

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