Digital planning reform: is this what is needed to fix the system, or does the system need to change to adapt to digital tools?


Global political and economic uncertainty, combined with some fear that community input into the planning process will be lost, appears to have tempered these ambitious aspirations. While the traces of the reforms have evidently found their way into the Leveling and Regeneration Bill (LURB), the overhaul of the system will certainly not be as drastic as initially envisioned.

However, rumbling quietly in the background without too much fuss or fanfare, a proposed “reform” began to gain momentum. With support from the government’s Digital Local Engagement and PropTech funding streams, a range of software solutions have been piloted and projects undertaken by local planning authorities (LPAs), with the aim of modernizing and streamlining the process of planning.

There have been two main areas of interest in this context: development management and the processes of plan development and public engagement. For development management, the Reducing Invalid Planning Applications (RIPA) software and Back Office Planning System (BOPS) were launched for participating LPAs in 2021, and more councils secured funding earlier this year to continue testing this software.

The RIPA software is intended for applicants, which makes it easier to determine before submission whether an application will comply with the relevant “rules” or “policies”, in order to limit the risk of submitting “invalid” applications. BOPS software then provides consistent tools for planning officers to more effectively manage their workloads, public consultations, and aid evaluations, with integrated mapping and planning policy tools.

For the development of plans, consultations and public engagement, projects have focused on four themes:

Topic 1: Plan Development Process: Policy 18 (preparing a local plan)

Topic 2: Plan development process: Policy 19 (publication of a local plan)

Theme 3: Development Management: Advertising Planning

Theme 4: Development management: Manage & analyze responses

DLUHC recently held a “pitch” webinar in which participating authorities provided feedback on their individual projects; giving valuable insight into what they have learned and what could be improved.

There has been promising progress. Development software was reported to have helped landowners to identify and submit their lands through ‘call for sites’ consultations, using online mapping and digital submission tools. In developing the plan, LPAs used innovative websites, graphics, simplified online submission tools and social media to proactively communicate with as many people as possible during local plan consultations, a more engaging and accessible way.

These are certainly positive steps, necessary to modernize the obsolete and archaic software systems that the PLAs currently use. However, for the development of plans, it was clear that simplifying and digitizing this process still had some way to go.

For example, making early high-level local consultation of Regulation 18 engaging and accessible via digital formats, to reach as many people as possible in a local community, is a very different perspective from seeking feedback and regulatory submissions 19. At this late stage, the complexity and technicality of the plan, its policies and its evidence base are likely to be overwhelming to the non-planner. It’s hard to see how simplified online digital tools can capture the detailed inputs or comments that are needed at this stage and in a format that could stand up to scrutiny during review.

So the question is, while no doubt there have been much-needed positive advances, will these advances, aimed at bringing planning into the digital age, make a difference? Will they streamline and simplify the planning and decision-making process, in order to come up with homes and other developments sooner? And will they make the system easier for people to navigate?

At this point, it’s just too early to tell. Reflecting on the experiences of APLs, while certainly a step up from the outdated systems that most APLs have, digital projects to date are not necessarily groundbreaking and clearly have some limitations. Technology, and in particular artificial intelligence (AI), is changing at a rapid pace and while I have no doubt that innovative digital solutions will be incorporated into the planning system at some point, it currently seems a long way off.

The adage that to solve a problem, you must first address the root cause, comes to mind. For example, the digital tools currently being tested will truly never be as good as the system in which they have to operate.

Unlike many other European countries which operate more legalistic and rules-based systems, the English ‘discretionary’ planning system and decision-making process involves a high degree of professional judgment in planning. This does not necessarily lend itself well to “computer says no” forms of software, except in a limited number of circumstances. While this judgment is no doubt hardening within LURB with decisions to be made in accordance with the development plan “unless material considerations strongly oppose it”, true digital innovation for decision-making is still a long way off.

Similarly, until the local plan and related policies are streamlined and resonate with “non-planners”, it is very difficult to see how the level of engagement sought, or the true digitization of the system, will materialize one day. Especially for the tech-savvy younger generation (18-35) or hard-to-reach communities. LPAs found that despite being armed with all of these tools, consultation engagement with this demographic group was very limited.

Ultimately, until the “system” is simplified or replaced by a more European model, as was perhaps envisaged in the White Paper, digital tools cannot implement or drive a significant change.

The system must first change. APLs need more resources, agents and training, and the plans themselves need to be more accessible to professionals and non-professionals. The latter may not be too far away for years to come, but until the real elephant in the room – the first – is resolved, these plans, while exciting, could just be wasted.

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