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A digital first approach to planning - fundamental innovation or a pipe dream?

By Rebecca Roffe

The planning white paper states, “The planning system is based on 20th century technology: planning systems are reliant on legacy software that burdens the sector with repetitive tasks.”

The premise of the paper is that the outdated reliance on old systems and documents (rather than, say, data) reduces the speed, efficiency and quality of decision-making. The government therefore proposes a much bigger emphasis on digital planning services to assist with this decision-making, as well as to improve the user experience and encourage community engagement.

The aims include the following:

  • making planning information easier to find and understand;
  • making it easier to comment on emerging proposals using a smart phone;
  • enabling the sharing of information using platforms such as digital neighbourhood groups and social networks; and
  • ensuring Local Plans are built on standardised, digitally consumable rules and data, which would also be required to include accessible interactive maps that show what can be built where.

In order implement this, the government promises to publish a guide to the new Local Plan system, including data standards, in advance of the implementation of wider legislation, and to work with both PropTech companies and LPAs in order to modernise software used for applications, including through an Innovation Council and a series of pilot schemes testing out a variety of technologies and approaches.

It's an enticing vision of the future. But what would actually need to happen to enable LPAs to implement this radical new approach?

Firstly, LPAs will need to overhaul and modernise their internal processes, which will require access to significant resources – including technical expertise, training and personnel and new digital systems utilising the latest technology.

Although PropTech firms are already developing apps and software to assist local planning, they are currently rarely used. This is partly because LPAs are under significant budgetary pressure, with Council cuts meaning that spending per person on planning and development is down around 60% compared with a decade ago. This leads to job losses, with the associated brain drain and lack of recruitment within younger age groups. There is also data which suggests that regional and smaller authorities often take the brunt of this.

So, councils' struggle with both budget and technology means that the transition from reliance on legacy software and paper documents may not be an easy one.

The white paper does propose that the new planning system would principally be funded by the beneficiaries of that system, rather than the taxpayer (i.e. landowners and developers). However, any transition to new technology will require significant up-front investment, whereas the white paper's approach relies on sufficient funding coming forward during the planning application process itself. My worry is that developers may be reluctant to take on this burden without certainty as to the individual or collective benefit that they will achieve, and that it will in any event not provide the boost of funds needed in advance of the reforms coming into force.

There are also many people who worry that some groups could be left behind by the increased focus on digital engagement, including concerns that the proposals risk breaking equalities legislation due to differential access for older people and some minority ethnic groups. Digital systems or smart phone apps will also have to take care to avoid discriminating against people with visual or motor disabilities. 

Lastly, there are valid concerns around the accuracy and robustness of the data which Local Plans are intended to be built upon, and the strength of any algorithms or examination tools used to analyse such data - as a digital-led system is only as good as the data that is put into it.

Fundamentally, as with its approach to many things, the white paper's approach to technological innovation will increase pressure on LPAs and add one more thing to the "to do list" of planning officers. So, unless such innovations are properly supported by the government in a timely fashion (whether financially or otherwise), they may do the opposite of what the white paper intends, by slowing up an already struggling system even further.

From my point of view, instead of trying to digitise the whole system at once, the government would be best focussing on how to increase the capacity and technological expertise of LPAs, including making planning an attractive option for graduates (including those from a tech background) and properly funding councils to enable more organic and sustainable improvements to systems and processes.

In summary, there is a lot to think through before we enter this brave new world. However, to end on a positive, the swift move of LPAs, PINS, the courts and other stakeholders to online and remote systems due to COVID-19 does show that "where there's a will, there's a way" – so long as the proper investment is made available!

Rebecca Roffe

Rebecca is a Partner in the Planning and Environment group in the Sheffield office of the global law firm CMS. Her experience comprises a broad range of matters, covering contentious and non-contentious work for private and public sector clients, with a particular focus on infrastructure, energy and real estate. This involves advising on matters such as M&A and real estate deals, development/statutory agreements, permitted development and enforcement, Habitats and EIA Regulations, Development Consent Order applications and the use of compulsory acquisition powers

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