By Louise Brooke-Smith – Development & Strategic Planning Advisor and Non-Executive Director
Remember when John Noakes had one of the very first mobile phones? He was out in the Blue Peter garden and called the studio, with no wires attached? Today, we can laugh at how naive that seems. Well, it was 1976 and IT in terms of communication was still in its infancy. Jump nearly thirty years to 2002 when Tom Cruise was evading capture, using a new set of eyes, trying to solve a murder coverup?
Adverts had auto-recognition and data banks remembered every purchase made. Minority Report, while seen as science fiction at the time, actually wasn’t far from reality and indeed, today, digital technology has moved on to not only embrace Mr Cruise’s futuristic environment but take the way we collect and use data so much further.
What has this got to do with planning? Well, it’s a game changer. It is moving the way we plan and develop land from the age of pen, ink and colour washed maps to an era of millisecond analytics, real time data management and effective land use development.
Government, and its aspirational Planning White Paper, is alive to a world that can and will benefit from the new era of #PlanTech. A time when development proposals will directly reflect what a community needs, built in locations that are better connected, rather than rely on blueprints and policy that has been years in the preparation. Development plans that have been through the mill, in terms of a zillion consultations and a bus load of planoraks and lawyers debating the nuances of housing need versus housing supply. By the time some plans see the light of day, they are already out of date.
No, those days need to be consigned to the bin. We have the ability to plan for our community’s needs in a far better way. Be it commercial, social or cultural community, we can use real-time data and costings to identify exactly what form of development should go where.
Many organisations have developed variations on the theme of ‘city analytics’ to support a country-wide role out of effective plans. Digital plans and processes can guide developers and investors to sites that really can be built out at realistic commercial rates. The smoke and mirrors of shady players claiming unforeseen costs and an inability to address much needed infrastructure improvements, will be a thing of the past. Similarly, local planning authorities will be able to be effective and proactive in supporting the right development in the right place.
We all know that the skills shortage means that most if not all planning departments have struggled, and funding is at an all-time low. But better use of technology will mean that small, data-savvy teams could be far more effective than any town hall full of obsolescent civil servants.
Things are moving fast and projects across the country are already using digital systems to make the planning system more accessible to all stakeholders. The London Datastore is a free and open data-sharing portal with access to over 700 datasets ranging from traffic flows, to where restricted water supplies, to where broadband is strong or air pollution is dangerously high. Many cities and regions are following suit and together with the plethora of information, such as flood plains, radon gas areas, sites of environmental protection et al, plus Land Registry information, means anyone can build up a picture of any site, anywhere, quickly.
Think of it as a live evidence base supporting speedy decision making, whether for dealing with traffic delays after an accident, or addressing housing needs when there is a clear need for a particular residential tenure in a specific location. Instead of plodding through outdated housing supply figures, and justifying an expensive planning application, real time data can now support the specific type and scale of housing to address immediate needs. Service providers are able to plan effectively providing capacity for future development. Add to the mix the envisaged value of a development plus the cost of constructing it, and you can avoid all the argy bargy of viability reports and years of expert witness mudslinging at Inquiry.
Calls for future development sites can be quick and easily checkable, as shown in Hounslow with over 100,000 sites identified and assessed using accurate real time data. Indeed, if we are serious about using brownfield sites before touching our sacrosanct greenbelt, then unlocking public land will be critical. MHCLG has recognised this through its Digital Land Assessment of public sector properties. By searching a range of departmental portfolios, it has found land that had previously been overlooked. Indeed, recent work by regeneration experts has found that nearly 350,000 new homes could be built on brownfield land not currently registered as ‘available’, due primarily to errors with the quality of data in the planning system.
Local Authority Brownfield Land Registers were envisaged to be a key source of land for new build projects. However, if the date held by those local authorities is erroneous or simply not current, then they are useless registers. U+I’s recent report ‘Data and the Planning System’ reflects a review of land across many of our major conurbations and found that with accurate data, land could be identified to address nearly 29% of the housing shortfall expected by 2030.
Digitising the planning system with robust and accurate data, means that our housing needs could begin to be addressed properly. Developers could rely on certainty and avoid the ‘planning application lottery’. We could see real liveable places that make the most of fully costed and effective infrastructure and well maintained and managed green spaces.
‘Smart’ is a term that will simply be applied to all urban areas that embrace the digital tsunami that has already hit the beach. Bluntly put, administrations that connect all that data will be able to plan effectively. It’s not science fiction. It is here already and needs to be embraced by every local planning authority across the country. Without it, I fear we will miss the opportunity and be plodding through colour wash plans, using quill pens for years to come. As John Noakes said, back in 1976 holding that first mobile telephone brick, ‘This is the future’ and look what has happened since then.