From reducing your workload to attracting more planners to the industry, Joe Scarse at Oyster Partnership explores how digitalising the planning system could transform the way you work.
Joe Scarse, consultant - town planning, Oyster Partnership
Following the recent Budget announcement, the government aims to give £65 million in an effort to digitalise the current planning system. Having previously carried out a pilot with several councils, including East Suffolk and Broxbourne, this is a move welcomed by most in the industry. Given that the digital age is already upon us, many would see it as a necessary change.
I believe that this shift will have three main impacts on the current planning system: it will reduce the workload for planners at local planning authorities (LPAs); it will allow them to assess applications quicker; it will bring more people into the industry by making planning more accessible and easier to understand.
Reducing your workload
Digitalising the planning system can help reduce the workload for planners who have faced a 45% increase in planning applications over the past year. Instigating tools such as artificial intelligence to help assess minor applications and validate them would free up time in the day to help you focus on the other major applications you may receive.
Similarly, a standardised format among local authorities would mean external consultants that are brought in would be able to get set up and running quicker. Although this would only have a small impact, given the current climate and how applications have timelines that they need to be completed in, every little helps.
Digitalising the planning system could also make creating the applications for the individual or developer less complex, while simultaneously resulting in fewer mistakes that planners must explain how to rectify to the applicant.
Speeding up the applications process
By simplifying and streamlining the process, not just for developers and LPAs, but for the public as well, this will increase the speed at which applications can be submitted and approved. Over time, this will hopefully become a cost saving measure for all parties, creating more sustainable and pleasant places.
The lack of up-to-date local plans has only slowed down a service that is struggling. In 2012, 34 local authorities didn’t even have one. Given how a local plan is instrumental for both developers and planners, the planning process - already marred by a myriad of issues - is finding itself hindered further.
Therefore, a potential benefit of digitalisation is that it could make local plans more accessible and easier to understand, allow easier cross district collaboration, and enhance the ability for communities to understand and provide feedback on the planning process going forward.
By allowing plans to become more readily available for the public, communities will have the opportunity to be more involved in the process by being able to provide feedback. Likewise, digitalising the local plans and creating a standardised format for them would make the process easier for all parties, including planners, architects, businesses, LPAs and the general public.
Attracting new planners to the industry
"Provided that the local plans are given a standardised format and digitalised effectively, this could make the planning system more accessible t those that it currently isn't, such as apprentices and students who are interested in joining the industry".
- Planning policy manager
Since the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) doesn’t have a standardised format on how much an LPA should elaborate on their plan, some plans end up being far more detailed than others. By creating a standardised format, they will become more accessible to both developers and the public, which could increase engagement by making them less confusing when looking at multiple districts. Crucially, they will be easier to understand for those who are making their way into the industry too.
As a planning policy manager* at a district council in Essex explained to me: “Provided that the local plans are given a standardised format and digitalised effectively, this could make the planning system more accessible to those that it currently isn’t, such as apprentices and students who are interested in joining the industry.”
Worth the investment?
It is clear that a change to the system is necessary. As the world changes, the way we look at planning must evolve with it. Yet, it’s easy to look at an existing system and point out its systemic flaws.
For the planners who focus on the local plan, digitalisation will streamline their workload. For those councils going into more detail that would be required in a standardised format, it will reduce their workload and speed up the process.
However, as a private practice planner** said to me: “This will require significant investment to implement the required level of change and will require agreeing what the vision is to benefit the system best beforehand”. This begs the question; can this be done the right way and what would this look like?
Provided this works, the £65 million spent may, over time, save money. Given how planning applications generate income for local authorities, it could prove to be a strong long-term investment.
Implementing the changes
Creating the vision for positive growth and finding a streamlined way to implement it seamlessly is another. To do so, a clear, structured, and well-made plan needs to be constructed in advance where shortfalls and spillover effects are assessed with contingency plans in place to minimise disruption to the day-to-day activities of developers and planners.
This change will affect a wide range of planning professionals who will need to adapt, especially in local government. As Timothy Broomfield***, a planning professional who has worked in local government for 40 years, pointed out to me: “It’s important to remember that increased dependence on digital systems will require effective monitoring, maintenance and training in order to make the planning process as efficient as can be”.
Some ramifications of these proposed changes may not be instantaneously solvable and will need time. It’s important to remember that these changes won’t happen in a vacuum and the process needs to be effectively controlled as much as possible to minimise any hindrances to the planning process.
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*A special thank you to the planning policy manager in Essex who wanted to remain nameless and was happy to share his thoughts with me on the proposed changes to the planning system.
**Likewise a special thank you to the private practice planner, who wanted to remain anonymous, for speaking with me about these new developments within the industry and sharing his extensive knowledge within planning.
***Big thanks to Timothy Bloomfield, a planning professional working in local government for 40 years, for sharing his perspective on the new proposals.