The Future Of Planning Applications
Many aspects of planning applications are still stuck in the digital dark ages! Residents shouldn’t have to rely on seeing planning notices attached to lamp posts, printed in newspapers or posted in libraries to be made aware of proposed local developments..
Planners spend time manually checking, sorting and searching documents because the formats (usually PDF or even scans of paper documents) are not searchable or readable by computers.
Plus, for many developers the biggest disruption to the process is when the lead local authority official leaves their job, suggesting that the system is too dependent on the views of individual people.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) have started addressing these issues and created the new MHCLG Digital team in 2018.
MHCLG Digital aims to upskill and update the Ministry for the internet age. It is a broad department that works on local digital collaboration, digital land services and policies, supporting local governments as well as addressing issues such as homelessness and loneliness.
Digital Land is the team working to make land and housing data easier to find, use and trust. Their mission is to make it easier for:
- Everyone involved in land and housing development to make better informed decisions
- Communities to better understand and engage with development decisions in their area
- PropTech companies to create new digital services for the marketplace
- Local authorities to record decisions and report data, freeing up their limited resources
- Policy teams in MHCLG to create policy based on high quality, relevant data
With the team and the foundations in place, the government have proposed plans for better digital engagement and online local plans in their August 2020 white paper ‘Planning for the Future’
What’s being proposed?
Machine-Readable Planning Policies & Automated Validation
Over 450,000 planning applications – each with data-rich drawings, tables and analysis – are made each year in the UK but computers cannot ‘read’ them. This means that case officers must look through all the documents manually, checking extension measurements against local authority policies to make sure that the proposed development is compliant.
If the documents were made to be machine-readable, then any rule based policies could be automatically checked by the computer. The computer could look at all the measurements and run a series of checks to make sure the plans are within permitted development/planning permission rules. If yes, then the proposal can be passed on to case officers for assessment. If no, then the computer could generate an automatic response – for example ‘Your planning permission has been refused because your proposed extension is 100 millimeters too high’ and then you could go and make adjustments without having to wait 8 weeks for the case officer to let you know.
Digital Standard Template For Planning Applications
Digital standard templates would streamline the application process and make it mandatory for all planning application documents to be submitted as a specific type of machine-readable file. This could mean that the proposed plans can only be submitted as 3D model data files instead of scans of scale drawings. It is hoped that in time, all planning applications and all conceivable associated data could be contained in a single ‘planning application’ file.
Digital standard templates in conjunction with automated validation will help to make the whole planning system more objective and consistent.
Applications could be submitted directly into a digital database which would be accessible to all – planners, architects, the general public etc. This would allow any edits/updates to be published instantaneously and give real-time access to all applications at any stage of the process.
With planning applications being submitted as 3D model data files into a digital database, this should allow local authorities to publish an online visual map of proposed local plans. The aim is to improve public engagement in the plan-making process by making planning information easier to find and understand.
From 14th May 2020, local planning authorities now have the (currently temporary) flexibility to take other reasonable steps to publicise planning applications, if the existing statutory publicity arrangements are not an option. For example, if local newspapers are not circulating in the area, authorities should look at using local online news portals. This is in response to the coronavirus but the long term plan is to see planning proposals available in places such as digital neighbourhood groups and social networks to support community involvement.
Councillors at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council have given their support for the government’s digital proposals and put themselves forward to be a pilot area. Their response was approved in principle at a council meeting on the 8th October, however the council will still consider further feedback from resident associations before the deadline on the 29th October.
So going forward, we should start to see:
- Planning applications submitted as data, rather than documents
- Shorter and more standardised applications
- Faster and less objective decision-making
- Online, easily accessible local plans
There will remain the option for applicants to appeal against a decision by a local planning authority. However, it is expected that with a more streamlined, rule based application process there will be fewer appeals being made.
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