digital planning gets closer to reality

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The Leveling and Regeneration Bill (338 pages / 14.2MB PDF) was published after the Queen’s Speech at the official opening of parliament last week. Several proposals under the bill will support the shift to digital planning, which has the potential to make the provision of information on planning applications faster and more efficient and to speed up decision-making.

A move to data, not documents

In its planning white paper published in August 2020, the UK government said the current planning system is “document-based, not data-based” and highlighted the need to modernize it. The Leveling and Regeneration Bill is the first real sign of a change in this direction.

The bill sets out measures to increase the use of high-quality digital data and services in the planning process – including the power to require compliance with data standards and to make planning data accessible to the public through an open license. The bill also includes a new power to prescribe the use of specific types of planning data software.

It is impossible to implement any digital revolution without data being at the base. Change cannot happen without legislation and so the Bill is a welcome step towards true digital planning and away from the unreadable PDFs that have frustrated many local authorities keen to innovate and digitise.

However, while the government has yet to set out the precise details of its “transition plans”, it said that “changes to planning procedures will start to take place from 2024, once the bill will have received Royal Assent and associated regulations and national policy changes”. are in place.” Many planning professionals will be frustrated that changes are not implemented sooner.

Data standards

Under section 75 of the bill, the Secretary of State is to require local authorities to comply with data standards. Section 148 creates a similar power for “relevant mandatory purchase data”. It remains to be seen which set of standards the government will adopt.

There are standards in place. For example, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) has endorsed the concept of data standards as part of a wider suite of ‘proptech’ standards, while the government is already enforcing open standards for sharing and collaboration on documents. The government may intend to develop new data standards specific to planning.

The ideal approach would be one that complies with existing industry standards, such as those approved for Building Information Modeling (BIM), as this will allow for the seamless parallel development of digital twins.

Planning data obligations for the applicant

Section 76 of the Bill gives local authorities the power to require individuals to provide them with planning data that conforms to an approved data standard. There is an exclusion for court documents, but no consideration for the claimant who simply does not have the technical ability to comply – that person could be at risk of digital exclusion.

This issue is already of concern to parliament and will need to be addressed alongside the development of relevant legislation

Open licenses

Clause 77 of the bill provides the power to require that certain planning data be made available to the public under an approved open license. This will be welcome as it makes valuable data widely available for free. This will both help develop data-driven policies and help researchers develop more sophisticated algorithms and better analytical tools.

Software Restrictions

Clause 78 of the bill gives the Secretary of State the power to make regulations that may prohibit or restrict the use of software.

The wording is relatively vague, but the explanatory note published with the bill suggests that this power will be used to ensure that standard data informs the development of the local plan and to require the publication of certain documents in a standard format.

This is the first time any planning legislation has referenced software – it will be really interesting to see how this is developed into the regulations.

Digital decision making

Under section 109 of the bill, the Secretary of State would have the power to require or authorize that development applications and related documents be submitted electronically. Section 129 creates a similar authority for documents submitted in an environmental results report.

As with other reforms, this will be a welcome step for local authorities trying to put in place automated systems that rely on a consistent type of data provision. However, the government will have to address the issue of digital exclusion if it wants the benefits of these reforms to be accessible to all participants in the planning system.

The Environment Act 2021 contains a definition of a “digitally excluded person” and requires special adaptations to be put in place – similar provisions should apply under the new bill.

A nod to the future

We don’t quite live in a planning metaverse yet, but the guidance document released alongside the bill refers to data-driven planning software and new engagement tools coming soon.

For anyone interested in how data could transform planning processes and policies, there is a lot to look forward to.

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