With the government pushing for a more data-driven planning system, Emily Scoones, business development lead at SiteSolve powered by Ramboll, argues there is an opportunity to capitalise on the potential benefits of digitalisation
The technology that underpins the planning system in England is long due an upgrade. The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government‘s (MHCLG) Planning for the Future White Paper, launched last year, is a major public consultation outlining reforms to make planning simpler and more data-driven. As part of this, last month MHCLG announced the 10 local authorities who are taking part in a local pathfinder programme to trial the use of digital, map-based local plans. This process will include testing new local plan data standards and templates for more machine-readable information.
But how can these changes and wider digitalisation transform the planning system?
Greater understanding of local areas
The level of detail of these digital map-based local plans has not been specified but the technology already exists for new 3D-model platforms. The use of these platforms would change the way local authorities can visualise and make assessments of their areas, and with centralised digital context-models, it will be easier to make holistic decisions around local strategies for developments or infrastructure and support the creation of local plans.
Additionally, the development of these models will also enable closer monitoring of the delivery of local plans in real time. Having a 3D model that contains both existing and planned development will provide more robust, outcome-driven information to help to ensure that the ultimate aims are being achieved.
Standardised modelling and improved accessibility, through digitalisation, provides a new opportunity to record and learn from the actual performance data. Data from the community or sensors could be fed back into the digital maps to evaluate the success of previous decisions to learn and plan better for the future.
For a digital planning platform to really work, however, the quality and maintenance of this data will be crucial. To ensure longevity of this system, the industry will need to work together to ensure a mutually beneficial process is created. A good example of this is seen in what Vu.City has achieved in London, where local authorities are leveraging the Vu.City model to consider planning applications, which in turn are fed back directly into the city model, creating a continually updated model, which gives a future view of the city.
Increasing community engagement
New digital systems naturally create the opportunity for a more interactive, useful community engagement system. By giving easy access to planning information, alongside the ability to enter feedback, local residents will be more likely to engage in the planning process. It is a great way to understand residents’ considerations, cultures and drivers, and to bring more diverse thinking into the design process. This can help to create a better relationship with local residents and a greater sense of ownership within the community.
New technologies could even allow the community to submit their own ideas or be an integral part of design workshops where they can push, pull and play with scheme concepts, massing and densities themselves.
The move to digitalisation brings promise that it will aid collaboration and communication on a cross-boundary level, particularly around infrastructure. This is important as various infrastructure services, such as transport, are connected to a wider system, meaning improvement for one area may be negated by lack of improvements in another. A government-led digital approach to the planning system can open the door for these broader collaborations, allowing the interdependencies between development decisions to be more comprehensively considered.
Driving better decision making
Importantly, there has been a surge in investment in tech start-ups, as well as more traditional, established firms developing a range of proptech tools to support and improve the early stage design and decision-making process. In combination with more standardised, accessible data and better collaboration between design parties, there is an opportunity to create and build better, more sustainable places.
Digital tools, such as SiteSolve, enable outcomes and key performance criteria to be tested and evidenced at a much faster rate. This can include quickly appraising the environmental and social credentials of a design to understanding the financial implication of following different strategies. This means more design solutions can be explored and optimised in a virtual space to really find solutions that work environmentally, socially and economically.
These tools can even have the standardised rule-based criteria coded in, providing more confidence that the solution being proposed will meet planning requirements. On the other hand, they can also help in evaluating and making decisions on planning application. Together, this has the potential to help simplify and speed up the current process.
When it comes to digitalisation of the planning system in England, there is momentum from government, industry and the proptech sector to drive this change. The benefits for the planning process are clear – improved clarity, better informed decisions and, ultimately, the best chance of meeting our local and national goals. It is yet to be seen whether this current digitalisation push will create the necessary changes in the planning process to realise these benefits, but it is promising to see it is heading in this direction.
Business development lead
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