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Digital Planning Reform

Some time has now passed since the proposed ‘radical reform’ of the planning system was published in the Government’s White Paper Planning For the Future back in August 2020.

Political and worldwide economic uncertainty, combined with some concern that communities’ input in the planning process may be lost, seems to have tempered these ambitious aspirations. Whilst traces of the reforms have evidently worked their way into the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB), the system’s overhaul will certainly not be as radical as was initially envisaged.

However, quietly rumbling along in the background without too much fuss or fanfare, one proposed ‘reform’ has started to gather pace. With the support of the Government's Local Digital and PropTech Engagement funding streams, a range of software solutions has been tested and projects undertaken by local planning authorities (LPAs), with the aim modernizing and streamlining the planning process.

There have been two main areas of focus in this context: development management, and the plan-making and public engagement processes. For development management, the Reducing Invalid Planning Applications (RIPA) software and Back Office Planning System (BOPS) were launched for participating LPAs in 2021, with more councils securing funding earlier this year to continue to test this software. The RIPA software is aimed at applicants, making it easier to determine before submission whether an application will meet the relevant ‘rules’ or ‘policies’, to limit the chance of ‘invalid’ applications being submitted. The BOPS software then provides consistent tools for planning officers to manage their caseloads, public consultations and aid assessments more effectively, with integrated mapping and planning policy tools.

For plan-making, consultations and public engagement, projects have been focused on four themes:

  • Theme 1: Plan-making process: Regulation 18 (preparation of a local plan)
  • Theme 2: Plan-making process: Regulation 19 (publication of a local plan)
  • Theme 3: Development management: Planning Publicity
  • Theme 4: Development management: Managing & analysing responses

DLUHC recently held a ‘showcasing’ webinar in which participating authorities provided their feedback on their individual projects; giving valuable insight into what they learnt and what could be improved.

There was some promising progress. It was reported that development software benefitted landowners in identifying and submitting their land as part of ‘call for sites’ consultations, using online mapping and digital submission tools. For plan-making, LPAs used innovative websites, graphics, simplified online submission tools and social media to communicate proactively with as many people as possible during local plan consultations, in a more engaging and accessible way. These are certainly positive steps forward, necessary to modernize the dated and archaic software systems that LPAs currently use. However, for plan-making, it was evident that simplifying and digitizing this process has some way to go.

For example, making an early high-level Regulation 18 local plan consultation engaging and accessible via digital formats, to reach as many people in a local community as possible, is a very different prospect to seeking comments and submissions at Regulation 19. At this advanced stage, the complexity and technicality of the plan, it’s policies and its evidence base, is likely to be overwhelming for the non-planner. It is difficult to see how simplified, online digital tools can capture the detailed inputs or comments that are necessary at this stage and in a format that could withstand the detailed scrutiny at examination.

So, the question is, whilst without doubt there has been some much needed positive progress, are these advancements, aimed at bringing planning into the digital age, going to make a difference? Will they streamline and simplify the plan-making and decision-making process, to bring forward homes and other development sooner? And will they make the system easier for people to navigate?

At this juncture, it is simply too early to tell. Reflecting on the experiences of LPAs, whilst certainly a step forward from the dated systems most LPAs have at their disposal, the digital projects to date are not necessarily groundbreaking and clearly have some limitations. Technology and in particular, Artificial Intelligence (A.I), is evolving at a rapid pace and whilst I don’t doubt innovative digital solutions will become embedded into the planning system at some point, this currently feels some way off.

The adage that in order to solve a problem, you must first tackle the root cause, comes to mind. Case in point, the digital tools currently being tested are really only ever going to be as good as the system that they are required to operate in.

Unlike many other European countries which operate more legalistic, rules-based systems, the English ‘discretionary’ planning system and decision-making process involves a great degree of professional planning judgment. This does not necessarily lend itself well to forms of ‘computer says no’ software, except in a limited number of circumstances. Whilst this judgment is arguably being tightened in the LURB with decisions to be taken in accordance with the development plan ‘unless material considerations strongly indicate otherwise,’ real digital innovation for decision-making is some way off.

Equally, until local plan and related policies become simplified and can resonate with the ‘non-planners’ out there, it is very difficult to see how the level of engagement sought, or true digitizing of the system, will ever come to fruition. Particularly for the tech savy younger generation (18 to 35s) or hard to reach communities. LPAs found that despite being armed with all these tools, consultation engagement with this demographic was very limited.

Ultimately, until the ‘system’ is simplified or alternatively changed to a more European model as was perhaps envisaged in the White Paper, digital tools cannot implement, or be the driver for meaningful change.

The system needs to change first. LPAs need more resources, officers and training, and plans themselves need to be more accessible to professionals and non-professionals alike. The latter may not be too far off in the years to come, but until the real elephant in the room - the former - is resolved, these projects whilst exciting, may simply be in vain.

First published in Property Wire, August 2022

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