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Arguing the case for a unified digital planning system

By James Harris, Policy and Networks Manager at the RTPI & Stefan Webb, Director of Digitising Planning at the Connected Places Catapult

The digital transformation of the planning system is already happening. But while the future might already be here, it’s not yet evenly distributed. The challenges of austerity are more pronounced in planning departments than most others, with budgets reduced by 50% since 2010[1], which means the capability and resource of local planning authorities to design and deliver a more efficient, transparent and accessible planning service is fractured.

Some planning authorities are beginning to design and develop new services for the submission of planning applications[2], new ways of monitoring the pattern of new development [3] and new ways of collecting and collating information about planning contributions[4] – but this change is patchy. Similarly (but for different reasons), innovation in the private sector is equally patchy and only scratches the surface of what is possible. 

Until all 365 planning authorities in England approach digital transformation in a unified manner, we will continue to diverge, developing 365 disparate ways of solving common challenges, dissipating the already limited resources of planning authorities, each one spending time and money to come up with mutually exclusive, unscalable solutions.

We also risk leaving many planning authorities behind – not knowing where to start or what to look for when trying to digitally improve their engagement with residents, how they procure new back office systems or how they commission reusable evidence base documents. 

And what’s more, without a concerted (and, we would argue, urgent) move to a more digital planning system across public and private planning sectors, we will inevitably face  disruption from big tech and the knock-on of losing control over how planning actually evolves.

Connected Places Catapult (CPC) and the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) have been working together to understand how planning professionals can best adopt new technologies to create a more efficient, effective and accessible planning system that frees up planners to plan.

While many individual digital specialists, such as Government Digital Services, have developed excellent digital service standards[5], and professional bodies such as RICS have developed important technical data standards , this doesn’t compare to the impact that could be made if these digital innovators and professional bodies came together to lead the charge and define the change.

Together both organisations have in fact started to envisage what the digital planning system of the future might look like, as well as the principles that need to guide its development. This joint vision – launched by Connected Places Catapult and RTPI at this year’s PlanTech Week – is underpinned by a series of principles that should guide planners, digital teams and decision-makers when making choices about how to design, procure and build the different components of a future planning system.

These principles[6] will evolve over time based on feedback from the sector, changes in planning legislation and upgrades to technology. But, to start with, they are:

  1. Ensure all published and commissioned documents, and the methods and data within them, are machine-readable, so they are easy to interrogate, share and re-use
  2. Standardise common built environment language, processes and data to support cooperation between government, developers, infrastructure providers and wider audiences
  3. Invest in open source tools, to provide the basic infrastructure for local planning authorities, the market and the public to collect, analyse and visualise data
  4. Build scenario models that allow local authorities to experiment and test policies and options in a standardised way
  5. Ensure that local authorities have the capacity to procure and deliver the right digital tools, and the skills to interrogate their outputs
  6. Be inclusive and diverse, considering everyone’s needs and making our services, data and tools accessible to all, including those without the confidence or skills to use digital
  7. Encourage new entrants to the planning sector, to develop new tools, techniques and technologies that can improve the way we plan
  8. Develop tools and methods for better analysis, monitoring and reporting of the economic, social and environmental outcomes of planning policies and decisions, beyond those usually measured
  9. Establish a common structure and data schema for local plans and planning applications, linked to an objective and open national evidence base
  10. Communicate the differing weight and flexibility of individual policies and the trade-offs between them
  11. Harness digital technology to foster participation in planning, unpack the decision-making process and communicate the impacts of development.

Our hope and intention is that a copy of these principles will sit on the wall of every planning team in the UK, motivating planners to pause and reimagine their jobs and the wider profession. But we know that this alone is not enough.

Over the coming months, Connected Places Catapult and RTPI will both engage the sector to review and revise these principles, and begin to generate some practical implementation guidance to ensure the principles can be put into action. We anticipate this being done in three parts:

  • Encouraging organisations across central and local government, the private sector and adjacent professional bodies, to sign up to the principles to create momentum and scale
  • Creating specific calls to action for each principle, setting out what government departments and agencies, local authorities and the planning industry must do to begin delivering a digital planning system
  • Signposting exemplar projects and practices that embody the principles, and creating templates that support planners to enact the principles in everyday activities such as specifying data standards or writing procurement documents.

We can’t achieve this on our own. Please join the PlanTech Slack workspace, contribute to the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #PlanTech or share your thoughts with us directly at [email protected] and [email protected]








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