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Planning software landscape: How new software is disrupting traditional processes

Anyone on the frontline of public sector planning in England over the last 20 years will know how software can help (or indeed hinder) the role of planners today. The challenge is not just the limited choice of suppliers, but also the fact that most of them are little more than glorified document management systems.

Despite claiming to empower efficient and accessible ways of managing a planners’ workload, our research shows they do the exact opposite. Rare is the planner aching to write a glowing review of any of them.

And yet, we continue to use them.

In recent years, however, we’ve seen a growth in new entrants to the market who are taking a very different approach. These contrasting approaches are the basis for our current research on what the future of a digital planning system for England could look like. We’ve looked at new approaches being driven by emerging products such as Lambeth’s Reducing Invalid Planning Applications, Hackney’s Submit My Planning Application (SMPA), Southwark’s Back-office Planning System and PlanX. Unlike their incumbents, their approach is very different.

Our research to date has identified seven key areas where legacy providers fall short of what these emerging applications can offer. They still:

  • Process documents, not data
  • Bundle service and data storage
  • Lack interoperability
  • Lack rule-based machine actions
  • Lack end-to-end software systems
  • Lack standardised data schemas
  • Fail to employ human-centred design

As mentioned already, incumbent providers perpetuate planning processes in documents rather than as data. This is in fact in many ways the source of all the other failings.

The incompatibility of the current digital landscape

The small number of longstanding incumbent software providers has inevitably led to a lack of interoperability within the software landscape. The absence of any shared schemas, and the data lost to non-machine-readable formats – such as PDFs – renders the kind of rule-based machine actions that would allow planning practitioners to spend more time being planning practitioners simply not possible. These issues are coupled with the fact incumbents are bundling their data services together with data storage and providing end-to-end services, both of which lock users in. And finally, the end-user does not seem to be central to the design of incumbent software, which makes the software experience counterintuitive, highly complicated and reliant on training.

Our research also shows that these transformations will also have both intended and unintended consequences, which we’ve outlined below.

The patterns of practice we have seen so far show that the transformation of the planning system will inevitably mean that the software used by planners will be designed, at least in part, by the planners and not just configured by them.

With an easier to understand system, more people will be able to engage with planning. This will likely lead to the emergence of more planning applications that are also valid and more accurate. As more people engage with and understand planning, we will also likely see a significant drop in enforcement activities as people comprehend what it actually is they need to do.

The benefits of going digital

Truly user-focussed digital platforms are likely to promote better methods of consultation, reducing the number of objections to proposals as well as overall costs associated with consultations. This will, in turn, lead to the faster and more effective delivery of much-needed homes, of the right types and in the right places. So everyone wins in the end. And isn’t that what planning should be about after all? Making sure that no one benefits at the expense of another and promoting the greater good?

The modular nature of new packages will inspire a new market for services, encourage innovation and disruption, promoting the evolution of the planning software market whilst also avoiding users from being locked in. Yet, if you flip this around, developing new tools and applications and creating a new market for planning software will necessitate a certain amount of resource investment. The active decision to invest in these resources is also an active decision to divert resources away from other parts of the economy.

Yes, greater transparency and democratisation will mean better applications and more of them. But what happens if in practice this means local authorities become inundated with planning applications and won’t be able to handle them?

Automation is the answer! With some tasks automated it should still be manageable!

Perhaps. But what if human judgement is needed in some cases and automation has done away with that? Is there a likelihood we will see more errors? That all depends on how we set this transformation up.

The possible pitfalls of digital transformation

So, while the digital transformation of planning tools used by councils may lead to an increase in the number of applications received, it may also lead to a significant loss of income. Pre-application meetings are a significant source of revenue for many local authorities as they can charge applicants thousands of pounds to meet with one or more council officers to discuss a proposal before it is submitted. Even before the introduction of Planning Performance Agreements (PPAs), many larger schemes enjoyed more than just one pre-application meeting before submission. With the use of more effective ways of screening applications, including the automation of various tasks, new digital applications will do away with the need for many pre-applications, potentially ushering in a massive blow to revenues.

And then there’s the human face of digital transformation. Think automated supermarket checkouts. Yes, they may be more efficient and save money, but those cashiers are now out of a job. Planning admin officers are the oil that keeps the wheels of planning departments moving and are the ones most likely to face the brunt of automation. They are the ones that process and validate applications, commence public consultation processes and ensure planners have the support to do their jobs. But of course, in a digital world the software would fill those roles, so what will become of those doing the work now?

And what about the planning consultants and agents. Whether you like them or not, they do currently play a significant role (and make a lot of money) interpreting and translating planning policy and decisions. A more accessible and understandable system would mean less dependence upon them as planning becomes a do-it-yourself activity – inevitably meaning there will be a lot of professionals out of work.

Breaking free from a small group of big software providers

The way the planning software landscape is currently structured around a small number of big players means there is a chance that modular innovation could become subsumed into them. This has already started to happen. Our conversations with various local authority planners revealed that many have pinned their hopes on the new rising star Tascomi, which purports to offer innovative solutions to their back-office needs. Yet, Northern Ireland-based Tascomi was purchased by Idox in 2019. Similarly, Idox’s biggest competitor, Northgate (part of the NEC Corporation), purchased design studio Snook, part of the team behind SMPA, also in 2019. So when a new disruptor comes along, will they just be bought out by the big players?

Well, on the one hand, this would bring us right back to where we are now – a small, closed circle of providers. This small circle is likely to remain though, primarily because it is simpler and easier for local authorities to procure than a series of modular components from a number of different providers. If new disruptors find that they can survive subsumption and acquisition, how likely are they to survive local authority procurement?

Then there is the issue of data security in an all-digital planning system. There will undoubtedly be threats to the integrity and security of data used in planning.

The wider implications of digital planning transformation for local authorities

But these are the challenges that lay ahead. The digital transformation of the planning system could have a ripple effect on the mindset of local authorities. Councils tend to be slow-movers when it comes to transformation. Cash strapped, under strain and highly bureaucratic, innovations are often at the bottom of the list of priorities, even if the long term rewards will be beneficial. That said, it may only take the transformation of one service to catalyse this change. Especially since new packages and tools could open up opportunities for interoperability across other council services. This is already proving to be true. In our work for the GovTech Catalyst, we have seen how innovations in housing monitoring will benefit building control, council tax and the overall planning of council services like waste collection and investments like new schools. And then there is the diversification and upskilling of local planning departments. New digital packages could also lead to an upskilling of existing staff, increasing digital literacy whilst attracting younger, tech-savvy ones.

We can’t tell you for sure what the future of the planning software landscape looks like. But we are absolutely certain that it will be a far better, more fit-for-purpose system than what we have at present. Our upcoming report will present the vision of what this potential new software landscape could look like.

Author: Justin Kliger, CPC Senior Urbanist (Architecture)

To get involved, feel free to get in touch at plantech@cp.catapult.org.uk.

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