PlanTech… Planning for the future

21 Nov 18 | Deborah Baker Barnett

Technology applied to the planning process (known as ‘PlanTech’) provides opportunities to do things differently, from streamlining the application process to adding longevity to development plans. Local authorities are very much in the vanguard.

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Last night, Iceni Projects attended the PlaceTech Awards where we were shortlisted for our award-winning Sustainable Development Scorecard. It was an inspiring showcase of the property industry’s most forward-thinking innovators. Blockchain is chipping away the complexities of property sales. The built environment is improved in real time based on user activity, as recorded by the smart devices we carry. Yet aside from The Sustainable Development Scorecard aside, the planning industry is being rather too quiet about its own tech advances.

Technology applied to the planning process (known as ‘PlanTech’) provides opportunities to do things differently, from streamlining the application process to adding longevity to development plans. Local authorities are very much in the vanguard.

Tech-driven solutions for administrative processes could help the challenges of dwindling budgets and free up planners to take on more creative tasks. This would help reform the profession’s stuffy image, which is largely blamed for discouraging entrants. Milton Keynes Council has obtained funding to apply artificial intelligence to the tasks of validating and assessing planning applications, with an initial focus on householder and permitted development schemes. It promises to speed up a simple fact-checking process which currently can be held up by a lack of resource.

Eyeing up the duty planner’s role is the Milton Keynes ‘PlanBot’, which is currently available but in a test phase. It is a useful tool for straightforward schemes, but machine learning cannot replace a planning officer for site-specific negotiation on commercial scale projects. It is essential that any officer time gained through such innovations is reallocated, rather than staff numbers cut.

Smart automation could provide a solution to the protracted nature of plan-making, which frequently leaves plans outdated soon after adoption. The right data should be made freely available and connected to intelligently drafted plans. Development targets and allocations would be auto-updated against pre-programmed prompts, as fresh data arrives. Time would no longer be taken up with ongoing debates about five-year land supply and reasonable completion rates, creating certainty all round.
Ultimately the opportunity exists to radically transform planning, by bringing it firmly into the 21st Century. But in order to do this, there are a number of challenges that the industry as a whole needs to overcome. Key to this will be a willingness, from both public and private sector planners, to embrace changes to what for many will have been career long practices. Yet the major challenge to a PlanTech revolution will be unlocking, and making proper use of, crucial data that is currently secured by the GDPR guard dog.

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