How Planning Reform and Digitalisation Can Improve The Planning System In England
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government's Planning for the Future  white paper which was released for consultation in August 2020. It outlines a proposal on reforming and modernising the planning system in England.
The overarching principles of making planning simpler and more data driven, while ensuring greater onus on sustainability and community engagement is welcome news. However, there are also areas of concern in the more detailed discussions around implementation. This article will discuss four key topics from the white paper in further detail: Local Plans, decision making, community engagement and infrastructure.
The statistic that Local Plans currently take “on average over seven years” to produce is quite a staggering one. Especially considering the difficulty to find, understand and use the information to make planning decisions in the first place.
The new proposal for digitised local plans would identify areas for “Growth”, “Renewal” and “Protected” is a positive step to simplify the current cumbersome system. The concern remains in how to reach and implement this approach without waiting seven years or more for this new plan to be in place. There will always be outlier cases and areas that sit in a grey-zone around these three categories but it must be ensured that evaluating these does not hold up the development of the whole plan. We should be asking if there is a high level study that can be undertaken to identify those pieces of land that have the most potential for growth which can be prioritised while these more complex sites are assessed?
This is where the PropTech market, including tools such as SiteSolve could help, by facilitating the evaluation of the masterplanning possibilities across large portfolios of land. SiteSolve’s generative massing and apartment packing algorithms calculate what can actually fit on a large swathe of sites. It allows for the iteration of various land development scenarios for example different height risk envelopes, different density strategies or apartment mixes. The visual / 3D model will allow these ideas to be viewed in context so stakeholders can quickly see how various densities and massing blocks could feel in their specific area. Local authorities, masterplanners and policy teams will quickly be able to understand the potential impact of particular strategies on their local area and help them to deliver on their targets.
The White Paper proposes a change from discretionary to rule-based decision making. This again is welcomed as a principle but it feels like it will be a challenge to implement.
It says that designs will undergo tests to ensure suitability, such as a “sustainable development test” and be evaluated by rule-based criteria, and that more of this information will be available in digital formats.
SiteSolve’s built-in optimisation facilitates this by giving users ta chance to weight the decision making criteria towards the priorities that matter to them and to create solutions that best matches those. And then with just a click of a button that criteria can be updated, SiteSolve rerun, and the impact on the design can be instantly seen. This allows for real-time data informed decisions to be made from these outputs.
Could more be done by encouraging/recommending the use of tools and technology that embed these rulesets to help designers and developers to always work within, or as close as possible to, those parameters? This could reduce the amount of evaluation time and reduce the level of iteration required to pass those tests.
In some cases, however, these rules will not be so quantifiable, for example how do you define subjective topics such as beautiful design? Or how do you balance multiple criteria that sometimes conflict with each other? Technology enables us to explore more solutions to help understand and balance the implications of different drivers for a development. This can be useful in helping design teams choose the right masterplanning solution for the area as well as communicating the design process that has been followed with wider stakeholders.
There is a huge focus on re-engaging local communities in the planning process in the White Paper. It acknowledges that using digital technology “to make it much easier to access and understand information about specific planning proposals” enables earlier residents engagement in the planning process. This includes in the development of the local plan, which is a great initiative. This means that the local plan can no longer be defined by the out of date density matrix number, as X number of units may mean very little to a resident. Instead it increases the importance of demonstrating the scale of a development through a visual manner. This raises the same concerns as above around the speed of development of Local Plans, however, as discussed this is an area, which again technology can help.
Designers, policy makers and delivery teams must consider the level that community engagement should be taken to. PropTech is already improving the current process by enabling residents to see information, submit their comments or, in some case, even voting on a series of developed ideas.
A simplified version of a tool like SiteSolve can embed local area rulesets meaning anyone can have a go at playing in the virtual space with the rulesets to guide them in their idea creation.
Is there a way of taking this a step further? Do we allow local communities to submit their own ideas or be a part of design workshops where they can push, pull, and play with massing ideas themselves? It may or may not be a level of consultation local resident want but that is a question that should be asked. It would also create new challenges around administration and managing the multiple views of the local community. But, on the other hand, is it an opportunity to understand resident’s considerations, cultures and drivers as well as bringing more diverse thinking into the design process? Will it help to create a greater sense of ownership and community in the local area? Although there would be challenges, it does not feel like an insurmountable feat to achieve an even more interactive, useful community engagement system.
This move to digitisation brings promise that it will aid collaboration and communication on a cross-boundary level, particularly around infrastructure. This is important as various infrastructure services, such as transport, are connected to a wider system meaning improvement for one area may be negated by lack of improvements in another.
The White Paper when discussing “Planning for infrastructure and connected places” focuses predominantly on the standardisation and usage of “The Infrastructure Levy” and alludes to the impact/constraints of infrastructure improvements. It, however, feels less certain about the National or wider level approach. It poses the question of whether there should be a greater link between infrastructure owners and the planning system.
Transport bodies and utility companies can have a large impact on the connectivity, values and opportunities of an area. Therefore should there be more onus on these companies to include the opportunities they would bring in more detail when defining their strategies. Otherwise, this could result in a chicken or the egg type situation so a mix of both is required. The key for this to work, which is firmly proposed in the White Paper, is access to the data and digital formats which allow for this information to easily be understood and used as part of the decision making process
The SiteSolve team has previously worked with Transport for London to undertake a study to build a case for land associated with transport infrastructure that could be released for development. SiteSolve was run by our expert team to evaluate the viability of over 2000 sites to understand the potential number of homes that could be unlocked through investment of infrastructure routes. It helped them to make their case to stakeholders and support their strategic decision making.