David Churchill, planning partner in Carter Jonas’ London office, believes a digital future for the planning process offers major advantages.
The Government’s ambition for the planning and development sector, as cited in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, is to achieve ‘full digitalisation of the system’, with the objective of making the planning process faster and more efficient.
It proposes that standardised and reusable data be used to inform plan-making, that digitalisation allows both plans and their underpinning data to be accessed and understood more easily, and that common data standards and software requirements be used across the planning system to ensure consistency.
The £3.25 million Proptech Engagement Fund was launched to pilot the use of new digital tools, using 3D interactive maps and virtual reality, to enable on public engagement in planning. While its aims are undoubtedly laudable, its scope is unprecedented.
At Carter Jonas we have worked with clients and across teams to provide innovative tools which considerably improve effectiveness and efficiency.
These range from a UK-wide mapping tool locating aquifers and land and planning considerations associated with mineral water bottling plants, to a tool developed in line with the requirements of the Environment Act which records habitat base lines for the purpose of calculating biodiversity net gain.
This has been invaluable to us and our clients because we carry out planning appraisals almost daily.
For each scheme, multiple online resources are accessed, and the information is brought together with a conclusion based on the needs of the client. This process is frequently repeated at different stages of the process from feasibility studies through to the planning strategy process.
Carried out manually, the task is time-consuming, routine and, when repeated, can be wasteful as the process needs to be repeated thoroughly each time even where there has been no change to the underlying evidence to ensure the advice remains robust.
As such, it had great potential for automation. The tool that we created approximately halves the time taken, representing a considerable saving. With this and other digital tools, we have ensured greater consistency across authoritative data sources and created easy access to data which can benefit planning and other teams.
Proptech has unquestionably brought considerable benefits: from time and cost savings to advantages which might have been unimaginable only a few years ago – such as the identification and interrogation of land for various uses including nutrient neutrality and biodiversity net gain.
But what does our internal experience of adopting new technology reveal about the challenge of digitising planning nation-wide, across a range of functions and to an audience which has no clear parameters?
Successful adoption of any new technology is dependent upon user attitudes. For something like the Government’s proposed mapping tool which is designed to support strategic planning consultations, this means creating a service for literally everyone, from the local authority planning departments to statutory consultees and the general public.
People evaluate processes against what they know and so the tool must demonstrably provide an enhanced service and communicate the benefits – such as ease and accessibility, the potential to access interesting local information and of course the better utilisation of data – all of which provide a greater opportunity to influence the consultation outcome.
When introducing a new technology, it is important that it’s not seen as change for change’s sake. The users must understand the added value that the technology brings and have complete trust in the source.
A considerable challenge will be the nation-wide application. Within Carter Jonas we’ve built up our own processes over time, but the Government doesn’t have this luxury.
Consistency is of utmost importance and there is a danger that this is compromised by the onus on local authorities to manage data sets. Brownfield registers are an example of the disparate approach that local authorities take to managing online information: despite a willingness to bring that data together, it hasn’t yet materialised – and this is a considerably less complex task than that which the Government has set itself.
But it is important to bear in mind that consistency is partial: while the user must experience consistency, and the source and quality of data must be consistent, this does not necessarily require identical software – open data standards allow for this data to be viewed in a variety of different applications, from publicly accessible web browser-based viewers to enterprise level GIS systems.
All too often, negative assumptions about automation are due to its association with unemployment. While this may have been true of the industrial revolution almost two centuries ago, it has little relevance to today’s technological revolution.
The move online requires skills in development, management and maintenance, and the potential for expanding services and content is infinite. In our experience, digitisation has reduced manual input, freeing up the Planning team to focus on more interesting and challenging work. A good analogy would be that of allowing the chef to be chef, with automation being the sous chef.
There is currently a significant skills shortage within local authority planning teams and yet we have an emerging generation of planners well placed to provide the technological insight that this service requires. Potentially a proptech revolution in planning could deliver far broader social and economic evolution and benefits.
Another issue relating to (potential) users’ attitudes relates to the outcome of a consultation. Within planning consultations, the greatest barrier to participation is the belief that responses will do little to influence the ultimate decision, and this concern is seen to be more common in the case of online consultation. Many consultation responses are long streams of consciousness, peppered with irony and sarcasm, full of nuances that only a human could comprehend.
Ultimately, machine learning and natural language processing may resolve this issue. But that’s still some way off – the likes of Google and Microsoft are continuously developing this type of technology, so it will probably take a decade or more to see practical benefits in organisations such as ours. Users of new digital platforms must be reassured that the human element in processing consultation responses remains, until the technology can accurate asses even the most verbose of consultation responses.
That said, the current speed of innovation is unprecedented. And if a single event were required to encourage people to appreciate and embrace technology, that event has recently occurred: Covid brought about a paradigm shift and an unprecedented adoption of digital solutions – from internet shopping and socialising via Zoom, to online planning committee meetings and virtual planning exhibitions.
The future digitisation of the planning system could not be better timed, the opportunities are endless, and the prospects are encouraging.
David Churchill has more than 20 years’ experience in the public and private sector and specialises in the promotion of large-scale projects in the housing, retail, employment and major infrastructure sectors. From feasibility and project inception stages, David leads the planning and EIA processes, through to delivery of development.
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