In the fifth in our series of articles about the 4th Industrial Revolution and its potential impact on the planning and development lifecycle we consider the potential for the planning process.

Planning is complex for a good reason. With the need, as a statutory process, to mediate public and private interest through detailed policies which can originate nationally and evolve locally, timing can be an issue for those wishing to bring forward development quickly to meet market demand.

While the process itself needs time, it should still be as efficient as possible and this is where this new technology can help.

In many respects, basic technology improvements can make an enormous difference. Statutory documents, such as Local Plans, don’t need to be long linear documents. They can be fully-searchable and linked together, as well as incorporating more accessible features that evolve as new technology develops in the same way that websites such as Rightmove or On the Market are keeping pace.

New technology will initially assist in four key areas in particular:

  • Processing planning applications at the creation stage ensuring compliance with policy, regulations etc. According to a combined report from the London Boroughs of Hackney, Camden and Southwark, over 50% of applications are invalid when first submitted which leads to resubmissions by the applicant and extra work by planning staff, which in turn creates delays.
  • Spatial analysis – putting an application in its full spatial, economic and demographic context. This has extra resonance during the current pandemic, moving this into an online or Augmented Reality space will enable continuity as well as better community engagement.

Connected Places Catapult, a UK Government-sponsored organisation, via Innovate UK, has also been considering technological solutions to the problems in the planning process. Two important areas for improvement, for which they are developing technologies, are:

  • Digitising the application process using online tools. A prototype named PAM (Planning Application Manager) is being developed. Its primary functionality will allow the user to submit and process their planning applications in real time and make changes as and when it needs to be amended during the process.

  • Another way of improving efficiency will entail the use of data and analytics to assess and inform applicants and local people about the impact of proposals in their area, enabling planning officers, and local people to visualise developments in situ. Currently, this is done through physical 3D models and plans, but Catapult is looking at technology which taps into the augmented reality apps available on mobile and handheld devices.

Underpinning these technologies will be the need for the data platforms mentioned elsewhere – Land Registry information and Building Information Data, to name two.

With great stress on resources in many Local Authorities, planners themselves will finally be freed up to focus on wider issues where new technologies are no substitute for human involvement. More time should become available for spatial planning and consultation as well as specialist areas such as heritage, where planning is often a highly subjective trade-off between protection of heritage characteristics and viability that needs bespoke, experienced advice.

While planning itself will always have to balance a range of interests, delays due to compliance and data at least should become a thing of the past. These technologies have the potential to eliminate systemic delays and bring about faster, more consistent applications backed up by better, more inclusive scheme consultation.