Technological improvements in the planning system are long overdue. Technology has advanced significantly since the Town and Country Planning Act was first introduced, which begs the question: why is the planning system so outdated when it comes to obtaining planning permission?
This is a point taken up by “Planning for the future“, the Planning White Paper published on 6 August 2020, which notes that:
“The planning system is based on 20th century technology: planning systems are reliant on legacy software that burden the sector with repetitive tasks”
We have seen a seismic shift towards the use of technology in the planning system as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, with a number of planning appeals and development consent order inquiries set to be fully virtual. It is clear that the government wants to keep up this momentum. How does it propose to achieve this?
The White Paper refers to local plans needing to be “visual and map-based, standardised, based on the latest digital technology and supported by a new standard template”. It goes on to say that the planning process would be increasingly digitised, moving from “a process based on documents to a process driven by data”. Local planning authorities would be helped to use digital tools to support “a new civic engagement process for local plans and decision-making”. This would certainly assist councils in fulfilling their plan making and consultation responsibilities, but would it really benefit developers in the same way?
The Prime Minister’s Foreward starts by saying let’s “tear it down and start again”, but when you consider how far technology has come and the advances made in other industries, the proposals in the White Paper are not really that radical. The vision is there, but the White Paper does not mention any ground-breaking technologies. In fact, “interactive maps technologies” have been in existence for a number of years and the UK has a long way to go if it is to achieve the goal of becoming a “world-leader in digital planning”.
It might be hard to imagine a planning system which is fully automated and of course, we don’t want planning permission to become a complete tick-box exercise, but with the right technology a lot of issues could be flushed out in advance and the process for obtaining planning permission could be made much simpler and quicker. Take for example digital twin technology, which creates virtual replicas of buildings, infrastructure and physical assets, and builds interactive 3D city models that pull together vast amounts of interactive data. This sort of technology has the ability to help predict and visualise outcomes and could transform the planning process. Similarly, smart phone technology has the potential to revolutionise public involvement and make the system much more accessible and efficient.
The good news is that the White Paper does refer to 3D visualisation technologies and it recognises the need to build new technology to help improve citizen engagement and planning processes. It also suggests that routine tasks could be automated and refers to machine-readable plans that could automatically screen developments to identify where they align with policies and/or codes. The government is also promising to engage with the UK PropTech sector through the PropTech Innovation Council (announced in November 2019) to make the most of innovative new approaches in technology.
Don’t worry though – all this technology isn’t necessarily intended to replace humans. After all, planning for beautiful and sustainable places (Pillar Two of the White Paper) requires some degree of human judgement!
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