There are 338 local planning authorities (LPA) in England, all of which are directed by Central Government and case law. Significantly, they all face similar technical and administrative challenges to meet their responsibilities: from the resource intensive process of validating planning applications upon receipt and meeting the pressures of issuing timely planning permissions, to monitoring growth and development trends in the area and delivering expensive and complex new local plans.
The recent emergence of PlanTech however has demonstrated how key challenges can be addressed and transformed with better use of technology and data. Several LPAs have already started their digital transformation as they seek to understand how data, digital and designed approaches can make their planning services more efficient, effective and transparent. And at the same time, the Central Government has also recognised the value of a more digital planning system by setting up the Geospatial Commission in 2017. Yet despite these positive signs of digital evolution outlined above, a new dilemma is now emerging.
Whilst it is broadly understood that a one-size-fits-all digital solution would in all likelihood be unresponsive to that local context so critical to successful urban planning, creating a bespoke digital solution for each and every local authority would be both prohibitively impractical and unaffordable.
To add to the complexity of digital transformation, local planning authorities are constrained by a lack of publicly available funds, and what little does remain tends to focus on delivering skeleton services.
There are rarely any funds left to undertake Research and Development (R&D) for digital innovation. This critical first phase technological innovation is where we map out in detail the precise challenges facing users of the planning system (i.e. planners, developers, citizens and architects) so that any investment in digital infrastructure can fully respond to their present and future needs. But currently the pace, quality and scale of the digital transformation of the planning system is growing unevenly across the UK. This is compounded by difficulty in finding and engaging suitable suppliers, the complexities in local authority procurement, a lack of digital skills and capacity within LPAs, and often missed opportunities from local authorities to work together to deliver PlanTech discovery research projects.
We need more collaboration on a national scale amongst local planning authorities to tackle shared R&D planning challenges. Collaboration would allow us to share results of research and avoid ‘silo-fication’ and duplication of work. Collaboration would increase the pool of talent, resources and knowledge in tackling these challenges, it would create a more comprehensive view of an issue, and would allow for the initial cost to be broken down and made affordable to all.
Which is where Connected Places Catapult can help. By using our market-neutral position and domain expertise in digital planning, we can help accelerate the transition to a more designed, digital and data-led planning system. Which is why we are building a consortium of local planning authorities with commitment, ambition and (small) budgets available to take this program forward. We have already created a long list of challenges where the planning system would benefit from digital transformation, and reached out to our networks of practitioners to identify which ones need prioritisation.
But we’re interested to see now if this has changed since COVID-19 and the new challenges it presents have so drastically changed the landscape.