Planning ‘needs a digital upgrade’

Friday 17 February 2017

The UK’s planning system is not ‘broken’ but is in need of an upgrade that may come about through moves towards greater digitization.

That was one of the key themes to emerge this morning at ‘Digital London – making the planning system work for the 21st Century’, held at the NLA.

Head of projects at Future Cities Catapult Stefan Webb said the planning system had often been blamed for the housing crisis, the creation of poor quality places and the real reason why citizens did not know about development taking place in their local areas. The way we plan cities is very much stuck in the 20th century, he said, with only agriculture and hunting figuring as less digital than construction. But the Catapult has set up a sounding board of people ‘knee deep in the planning process, but with an open mind’ to try to change the process, including communicating planning to lay people, enabling data to be more open, flexible and accessible, investigating gaming tecnologies and reaching a position as far away from the classic laminated planning application notice attached to a lamppost, as possible.

Co-founder and CEO of Land Insight Jonny Britton said his company is aiming to bring technology to improve the system via a programme that allows people to see information about sites and how schemes might affect their area.

But one of the issues, said Farrells partner Laura Mazzeo, is that architects create all-digital, incredibly rich models, with masses of detail in BIM, but are forced by the planning system to ‘dumb them down’ when it is time to submit them. ‘The challenges are probably the political will and platforms to get that data and share it and use it across the planning system’, she said. ‘We have the means to make it happen’.

Chair of the London Forum of Civic and Amenity Societies Peter Eversden said another issue was that many boroughs have out-of-date websites, making it hard for communities to access information, and the local plan had to be respected.  Finn Williams. North-west area manager, regeneration, GLA, added that there was a lot of wasted time in the system, especially in terms of digital applications being scanned and printed off – ‘nobody went into planning to scan PDFs’ he said. But in the move toward greater digitization, we need to be careful of not further disempowering the planner, he added, and boxing them into being less proactive – and if we make the system more efficient it may be used as justification for losing jobs. ‘Digital technology will help a lot but will not be a solution in its own right.’

First Base director Barry Jessup said it was pretty evident that digitization has to occur and is a ‘no-brainer’ that will make the whole process better, allowing planners to focus on things that matter. But one of the frustrations of the current process was that some of the benefits – say of S106 payments – are not articulated to the wider population, and perhaps digital advances might be one way of doing so. ‘I think we should be a little more creative and courageous’, he said.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly 

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