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Planning bills may come and go, but digitisation is here to stay


The government’s Local Plan Pathfinder project is another step on the unstoppable march towards digital, says Alex Tosetti

Since the Queen’s Speech the planning sector has been full of speculation. Key elements of the planning white paper – digitisation, speed of delivery, efficiency, citizen engagement and data sharing – are firmly in the spotlight. The possible themes of the forthcoming planning bill are hotly debated, but one thing is clear: technology is already, and must continue to be, a driving element of our industry.

This has been reinforced with the announcement on 1 June of the government’s £1.1 million Pathfinder pilot scheme, in which 10 councils will trial digital planning tools.

An accessible, digitised system can be of benefit from the beginning of local plan development. Digitisation can speed up housing delivery and give communities greater understanding of, and involvement in, plans, and digital collaboration across teams enables planning and design decisions to be made efficiently.

Progressive adoption of digital tools will give the planning system scope to seamlessly bring together the strengths and opinions of planners, developers, architects, builders and citizens.

"Citizen engagement goes hand in hand with levelling up. Digital technology platforms can bring communities and under-engaged groups into the planning conversation"

Digital tools can help to visualise and communicate proposed developments to a wider audience, allowing citizens to engage with the plan from the outset. This in turn allows planning professionals to understand if a development is supported from its earliest stages, thus helping to ‘de-risk’ projects.

The pandemic has increased the use of digital technology, for example, in virtual planning committees. Many are keen to keep these virtual meetings in place because of the gains in public participation, which reinforces democracy within planning.

James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, has voiced his concern that without continued virtual meetings we risk undoing the progress made and damaging “our vital local democratic process”. Using 3D visualisation in meetings, for example, can help a citizen understand in real time how a development will affect the view from their front door This is helping to rebuild trust between citizens, developers and local authorities.

Citizen engagement goes hand in hand with levelling up. Digital technology platforms can bring communities and under-engaged groups into the planning conversation. They can diversify planning, cut through its jargon and red tape, and enable citizens to experience how developments will affect them. This can help to alleviate fear of the development process.

Digital tools play into the wider levelling-up agenda by facilitating development and speeding up delivery of the homes and infrastructure required to boost regional growth. We have heard from recently elected mayors across the country pledges to digitise, innovate and decarbonise their regions and communities. To achieve this at scale, it will be important to invest in the latest technology.

The planning world must wait patiently for the publication of the planning bill. In the meantime, proptech and plantech businesses are continuing to create digital solutions that will help to deliver a better planning system for all. 

Alex Tosetti is chief commercial officer for VU.CITY

Image credit | iStock


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