This week, I gave a “Planning 101” session for the team at FutureGov, explaining how the planning system works. That was poor timing, just as the world changed….

The planning white paper released yesterday is most certainly radical, but perhaps not in the ways many expected. Some things remain the same; a plan-led system created by local authorities which guide development in accordance with the national planning policy framework. Developers will still have to submit a planning application, but now, show how their development complies with national development management policies, local zoning definitions and national and/or local design guides and codes.

Should most of the white paper’s reforms make it to the statute book, then local public institutions will need a very different set of capabilities, systems and services to make the most of the opportunities, and mitigate the challenges, of the reformed system.

Planning disruption

The white paper identifies many of the challenges that today’s planning system creates for communities and property developers, but also planners themselves. The system is too complex, takes too long to create a local plan, is challenging for small developers to navigate and:

…is based on 20th-century technology: planning systems are reliant on legacy software that burden the sector with repetitive tasks. The planning process remains reliant on documents, not data, which reduces the speed and quality of decision-making. The user experience of the planning system discourages engagement…

However, most worryingly is the (continuation) of the centralising tendency of this administration. It’s central government that will determine how developers contribute to local infrastructure, rather than the locally negotiated and determined s106 and Community Infrastructure Levy. It will be central government who defines what constitutes ‘beautiful’ development through national design codes. The blunt zonal approach of three zones for growth, renewal and protection will radically reduce the opportunity for creative approaches to local circumstances. And the final and deepest cut is essentially removing local political and resident involvement in determining planning applications

I’ll leave the fundamental consideration of whether this approach will deliver more homes, affordable homes, carbon reductions and beauty than our current more discretionary system to those far more qualified. But it’s profoundly centralising and anti-democratic.

Frontloading the planning process so that plan-making is the main, if not the sole opportunity for local influence, brings up many challenges for local authorities.

How many normal citizens know that a local plan exists? Let alone what its function is? Achieving the stated aim of “Local councils… radically and profoundly re-invent[ing] the ambition, depth and breadth with which they engage with communities as they consult on Local Plans” will require a fundamental rethink about how the role of the planning is communicated to local people.

The large risk is that without significant improvement in the number of people engaged, and the quality of that engagement at the local plan stage, already high levels of citizen dissatisfaction will continue to rise.

With a much-reduced window to produce the new-style local plans (30 months vs ~5 years today), little guidance on defining the new zones and seemingly no requirement to generate an evidence base to define those zones, a new mindset, ways of working and new approaches to gathering, understanding and analysing geospatial data will be essential.

Planning authorities will need to think about how to aggregate information across many sites to understand which zone a particular site should fall within. The discovery prototype developed by Gateshead and Connected Places Catapult (CPC) is a good example of an SME developer de-risking tool that could begin to automate the generation of the information needed for Planning in Principle.

The emphasis on design quality is a positive sign. But, we’ve seen local authority design capacity cut to the bone. In 1976, 49 per cent of all architects in the UK worked for the public sector. Today it is 0.9% in the UK and only 0.2% in London.

Despite building capacity back into local authorities, thanks to organisations like Public Practice, how will locally produced design guides and codes work alongside the national guide and codes? How can local authorities build their own capacity in architecture and urban design, without having to rely on external consultants?

Digital disruption

The real radical move set out by the white paper is the significant shift to a more digital system. One that is far more weighted to local plan-making, yet with little local democratic control over decisions on specific developments.

We want to move to a position where all development management policies and code requirements, at national, local and neighbourhood level, are written in a machine-readable format …

Of all the digital elements in the white paper, this could be the most profound. Some on Twitter already voice fear for the rise of the planning robots. Others fear policies, code and guidance understood by machines will not be understood to humans.

In fact, the opposite should be true. More consistent, well written and understandable parameters for development that are readable by machines should also be more readable by humans.

The opacity and complexity of planning, layered by legislation, custom, practice and poor legacy systems has distanced planning from the important, real-world impact that it has. With better-designed rules and more open, data-rich plans and applications, we can increase the accessibility and understanding of planning for a far wider audience. It would also open up a new realm of possibilities for interpreting, analysing and communicating local plans and their impacts on place, people, economies and environments.

But would a more digital and rule-based system lead to the deskilling of the planning profession? I certainly hope not.

Our drivers should be to use design and technology to free planners to plan, level the information asymmetries between public planners and developers and reduce the space for consultants to peddle the analytical money for old rope and lawyers to befuddle. Projects like PlanX provide a glimpse into the types of skills future planners will need, working closely with service designers, urban designers and coders to design new planning policies.

Digital engagement

Throughout the white paper, there’s significant weight around the need to engage communities, with digital consistently flagged as an opportunity. The digital divide that exists in planning is generally the opposite to what it normally is, something I explored in a recent blog post about digitally native planning engagement.

Digital engagement alone cannot do the heavy-lifting required to make residents aware of their role and impact of plan-making and development. But it does play an important part.

greater standardisation of technical supporting information, for instance about local highway impacts, flood risk and heritage matters.

The potential of a greater standardised data means we can present planning information in new ways, for example, allowing planning departments to create tools that better communicate the pattern, local and aggregate impact of development, such as the conceptual prototype developed with CPC and Birmingham City Council, FuturePlan.

a significant enhancement in digital and geospatial capability and capacity across the planning sector to support high-quality new digital Local Plans

There’s potential to make planning radically more accessible while also creating new products and services on top of it. It could be the first example of ‘government as a platform’ as first conceived by Richard Pope and Tom L. To get an idea of the potential of digital local plans, consider MHCLG’s conceptual prototype for a Land Information Platform.

What does this mean for local authorities?

Given that the new system will only become clear as it emerges from new primary and secondary legislation and new style plans are targeted to be in place in 2024, authorities need not immediately change.

But the direction of travel that the document suggests is one that planning authorities should be taking anyway. Investing in and developing greater understanding and internal capabilities in design, digital and democratic and citizen engagement are steps that planning and place departments should be taking, regardless of any white paper.

And thinking beyond that, there’s a real opportunity to organise differently now and respond in a more collective fashion to the consultation. With the deep knowledge of place held by local public institutions, your network of assets, strengths and partnerships local authorities are well placed to point out where the new approach will not only disenfranchise citizens but is unlikely to achieve its aims of more affordable and high-quality homes.

This will require building alliances across political boundaries to influence potential legislation and the effects it will carry.

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