It ain’t broken, but it does need fixing; The role of technology in the future of Planning

10 Oct 19

PlanTech could play a significant role in removing uncertainty, increasing efficiency and creating a more transparent planning system for all.

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Last week over 70 young industry professionals descended into Iceni Projects’ former underground car park to hear all about what the future held for the Planning industry. NextGen attendees of the London Property Alliance event were keen to hear how technology may influence the way planners work in the future, how it could affect development in London going forward and quite simply, what PlanTech actually is.

The LPA event, the ‘Future of Planning’, hosted a ‘celebrity’ PlanTech panel with the following key speakers providing their thoughts and specific takes on the role technology could play in the future of Planning:

• Stefan Webb – Director of Digitising Planning at Connected Places Catapult;
• Peter Kemp – Planning Change Manager at the Greater London Authority;
• James Harris – Policy and Networks Manager at the Royal Town Planning Institute;
• Grace Manning-Marsh – Product Manager at LandInsight (LandEnhance); and
• Michael Meadows – Head of Planning at British Land.

Whilst the event didn’t provide us with a clear definition of PlanTech (it quickly became obvious it would take us more than an evening to get that one down!) a number of pertinent points were made. We have managed to whittle these down to five key takeaways:

We need to start collecting data effectively and making it open to all.
Whilst planning policy and planning applications play host to enormous amounts of data, we are not collecting this, or writing this in a way in which a machine can understand. Information we submit as part of a planning application is lost and data contained within policy maps and evidence-based documents is locked up within pdf documents. The GLA are making great strides towards collating this information, the first key step being their Planning Data Standard. Whilst currently in draft form the Standard will require Applicants to provide specific information at submission which will automatically be collected by Local Planning Authorities. This in turn will create a ‘live hub’ of planning and development information which will be open and accessible to everyone.

We should acknowledge the role technology can play in more effective strategic planning.
PlanTech has an increasingly important role to play in strategic planning, across Borough boundaries and across variety of industries. Looking outside of London, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority have produced a series of live maps which contain impressive amounts of data on, and not limited to; planning applications, housing projections and site allocations, transport routes and capacity, infrastructure projects and socio-economic figures, which are all publicly accessible. The GLA are equally developing their London Development Database to map development permissions, starts and completions, whilst they have also produced an Infrastructure Map in which to track current and future development and infrastructure projects.

We need to start making policy and data readable by both humans and a machine.
Controversially, we may need to rip up the planning rule book and rewrite all of our planning policy and evidence documents in a way in which a machine can read. This could allow us to vastly improve our AI capabilities going forward and allow for planning data integration outside of the industry. Whilst some London Local Authorities are investing in software which can both validate and provide initial planning advice on householder applications, the capabilities of extending this beyond householder level is limited by our current planning policy formats. Furthermore, the format and organisation of this information and data is kept in a way which is difficult for those outside of the industry to understand, let alone use.

We should embrace the innovations in PlanTech can bring to all parties.
PlanTech could play a significant role in removing uncertainty, increasing efficiency and creating a more transparent planning system for all. With data open, readable and accessible, standardised ways of testing policy can be produced, meaning less time spent on arguing over housing land supply figures and more time on being creative. The open-source tools can allow developers and the public to analyse data, whilst software such as VuCity also enables all parties to visualise it. Progress in engagement tools is softening the relationship between developer and public, with developers such as British Land introducing and seeing the benefits of their ‘Broadgate app’ which enables the public to view, explore and comment on their construction work.

We shouldn’t get lost in definitions, nor should we isolate ourselves amongst the property profession.
Don’t waste your time trying to generate a clear definition for the name ‘PlanTech’. The term helps us categorise the ideas and community around new products and services which will make planning faster, more transparent and responsive. Whilst isolating PlanTech aids in acknowledging it as a movement in its own right, technological advances in Planning should still be incorporated within and thrive upon the progress being made in the wider property industry.

The numbers of NextGen members attending the event clearly demonstrated an interest in the topic but also a drive from the younger generation to see a change in the way the planning system works. It was clear the audience wanted a more digitalised planning system going forward which could make the sector more efficient, transparent, predictable and intelligent. As Stefan Webb noted, ‘the planning system isn’t broken, but it does need updating’, and although it may feel like slow progress, we are increasingly witnessing more interest and innovation within the industry in which to achieve that.

Iceni Futures
Iceni Projects prides itself in being a disruptive and forward-thinking consultancy. Our sector group, Iceni Futures, aims to help drive and support innovation within the planning industry and ensure Iceni Projects is at the forefront of change, both for the company and for clients. Iceni seeks to bring the planning industry into the 22nd century, rather than the 21st and to ensure that planning legislation and policy keeps apace with emerging technology and thoughts around the uses of spaces.

Iceni are currently seeking developers interested in these innovations to take part in a workshop in collaboration with the Greater London Authority. The workshop will incorporate a consultation on the draft GLA Data Standard (details of which can be found here: https://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/planning/london-plan/london-development-database/london-development-database-automation-project). The standard will impact the level of information collected by the GLA and open to the public but also the level of information required as part of any planning application submission going forward once the standard is adopted.

For more information or to register your interest, please email Charlotte Orrell at correll@iceniprojects.com

Alice Hawkins Assistant Planner,Planning

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