James Harris, policy and networks manager at the Royal Town Planning Institute, and Stefan Webb, director of digitising planning at the Connected Places Catapult, discuss their collaboration looking at how the planning system can adopt new technologies to improve efficiency and free up planners to plan
The digital transformation of the planning system is beginning to take place. And while the future is already here, its unevenly distributed. The challenges of austerity are more pronounced in planning departments than most others, with budgets reduced by 50% since 2010. This 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, new ways of monitoring the pattern of new development, and new ways of collecting and collating information about planning contributions, but this change is patchy. Innovation in the private sector is equally patchy and only scratches the surface of what is possible.
Unless all 365 planning authorities in England approach digital transformation in a unified manner, we risk developing 365 disparate ways of solving common challenges, dissipating the limited resources of planning authorities, with each spending time and money to come up with mutually exclusive solutions.
We also risk many planning authorities being left behind – not knowing where to start or what to look for when trying to digitally improve how they engage with residents, procure a new back office system or commission a reusable evidence base document.
Finally, unless there is a concerted move to a more digital planning system across public and private planning professionals, we risk disruption from big tech and a loss of control over how planning evolves.
The Connected Places Catapult (CPC) and 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 digital specialists, such as Government Digital Services, have developed excellent digital service standards, and many professional bodies such as RICS have developed important technical data standards, there is something powerful in digital innovators and professional bodies coming together to lead the charge.
Together, both organisations have started to envisage what the digital planning system of the future might look like, and the principles that need to guide its development. This vision and the associated principles were launched by CPC and RTPI at this year’s PlanTech Week.
This joint vision 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 will evolve in response to feedback from the sector, changes in planning legislation and upgrades to technology. But, to start with, these are:
- Ensure all published and commissioned documents, and the methods and data within them, are machine-readable, so they are easy to interrogate, share and reuse.
- Standardise common built environment language, processes and data to support cooperation between government, developers, infrastructure providers and wider audiences.
- 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.
- Build scenario models that allow local authorities to experiment and test policies and options in a standardised way.
- Ensure that local authorities have the capacity to procure and deliver the right digital tools, and the skills to interrogate their outputs.
- 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.
- Encourage new entrants to the planning sector, to develop new tools, techniques and technologies that can improve the way we plan.
- 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.
- Establish a common structure and data schema for local plans and planning applications, linked to an objective and open national evidence base.
- Communicate the differing weight and flexibility of individual policies and the trade-offs between them.
- Harness digital technology to foster participation in planning, unpack the decision-making process and communicate the impacts of development.
It’s our hope and intention 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 is not enough.
Over the coming months, CPC and RTPI will both engage the sector to review and revise the principles, and begin to generate some practical measures that will begin to put the principles into action. We anticipate this being done in three parts:
- Getting 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 needs to do to begin delivering a digital planning system.
- Signposting exemplar projects and practices which 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 won’t be able to achieve this on our own. We encourage readers to contribute to the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #PlanTech, or share your thoughts with us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Policy and Networks Manager
Royal Town Planning Institute
Tel: +44 (0)20 7929 9494
Director of Digitising Planning
Connected Places Catapult
Tel: +44 (0)20 7952 5111