The Governments digital ambition

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. Planning and Development InSite spoke to three experts on digital communication and planning at Carter Jonas to ascertain how the project might be realised. 


How can the digitisation of the planning system be realised?

Samuel Smylie is a Business Analysis Manager. His overview of Carter Jonas’ function in the market enables him to identify where procedures which have developed through organic growth would benefit from a more consistent, measured and structured approach, and how new digital tools developed by a specific service line can introduce wider efficiencies.

Simon Nigh is Head of Geospatial. He supports teams and clients with 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. 

David Churchill is a Partner in the London Planning team and worked closely with Simon in the development of a tool to bring greater uniformity, consistency and efficiency planning appraisals. 

David explains the project: ‘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 stages 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. Working with Simon’s team, we developed a tool which 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 Carter Jonas’ experience of adopting new technological solutions reveal about the challenge of digitising planning nation-wide, across a range of functions and to an audience which has no 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,’ says Samuel. ‘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.

Simon concurs, ‘In 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. ‘There is a danger that this is compromised by the onus on local authorities to manage data sets,’ says Simon. ‘Brownfield registers are an example of the disparate approach that local authorities take to managing online information: despite an initiative 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,’ David says, ‘It’s about requiring the chef to be chef, with automation being the sous chef’.

There is currently a significant skills shortage within local authority planning teams,’ he continues. ‘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.

Challenges and barriers to digitisation

An earlier comment referred to the quality of the outcome ultimately determining take-up. Within planning consultations, the greatest barrier to participation is the belief that responses will do little to influence the ultimate decision. 

The challenge lies in the limitations of technology to analyse qualitative responses accurately. Many consultation responses are long trains of thought, peppered with irony and sarcasm, full of nuances that only a human could comprehend – currently. 

Ultimately,’ says Samuel, ‘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.

That said, the current speed of 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 to socialising via Zoom. The future digitisation of the planning system could not be better timed, the opportunities are endless, and the prospects are encouraging.

@ David Churchill
David Churchill
020 7518 3348 email me about David

David is a Partner in the Planning & development team and is based in our Chapel Place office.

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