Transforming the Future of Planning through Digital Innovation and Efficiency

Valuable insights, experiences and perspectives from the future of digital planning panel discussion

If you've worked in planning, you'll already be familiar with the proposed changes to the NPPF, and the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill. Lots of these changes form part of the UK planning system overhaul to modernise and reform, but there is no doubt that there is also a very strong digital agenda to deliver a better service to the community.

We’ve consulted with planning executives across the country to establish common ground. Most conversations throughout our workshops and roundtable discussions centred around two things:

  1. the lack of human resource; and
  2. whether digital resources can assist in making the planning process more efficient.

    Could digital be the answer planning professionals are waiting for?

    In our recent webinar hosted alongside the Planning Portal, we were joined by an expert panel who shared their valuable insights, experiences and perspectives on how they envisage the future of digital planning.

    Here are some of the highlights.

    Digital Planning in Action

    Anneliese Hutchinson discussed Gateshead Council’s journey toward digital planning, highlighting how it will help to address the challenges faced by local authorities with limited resources.

    For the Council, it is viewed as a mechanism to push data-driven approaches in order to simplify processes, increase efficiency, enhance the public’s understanding of the planning process by making services more accessible, and free up time for more valuable aspects of planning, such as adding value to placemaking.

    Anneliese considered how digital engagement is also deemed crucial to overcome the limitations of traditional methods of consultation and ensure broader participation and understanding of the value of planning.

    With looking at how we engage people digitally, we can make it easier for everyone to understand the value of planning and how it works.

    Anneliese Hutchinson

    Service Director at Gateshead Council and President of the Planning Officers Society

    At a time when many LPAs have paused their local plans to await further guidance from Whitehall, Maria Dunn, explains why Europe’s largest authority, Birmingham City Council, are continuing to push ahead and how they are getting digital on their radar.

    We feel it's important to have an up-to-date local plan to deliver the development that the city needs.

    Maria Dunn

    Head of Development Policy at Birmingham City Council

    One notable project Maria discussed is the use of PlaceMaker, a digital tool that helps identify suitable sites for residential and employment development. This proactive approach streamlines the site identification process and enables Birmingham City Council to engage with landowners effectively. 

    The Council are also working on Community Engagement projects and looking at their Development Management systems as part of their digital programme. The use of these digital tools enhances the efficiency and accuracy of the planning process.

    Graham Stallwood from The Planning Inspectorate echoed Maria’s comments – by having plans in place, there's much greater potential for communities to direct where they want their development to take place. 

    Looking back over his 20 years in the planning space, he commented on the progress that has been made and what still needs to happen to become fully digital.

    We've come a long way, but essentially what we've still got is information in PDFs instead of information on paper. And what we're not doing getting the benefit and the power of all that data that's locked in those documents

    Graham Stallwood

    Chief Operating Officer, The Planning Inspectorate

    Data Standardisation for Streamlined Processes

    One of the key challenges in the planning process is the management and interpretation of vast amounts of data. 

    Standardising data across different systems and authorities can significantly improve efficiency and reduce duplication of effort. By adopting common data standards and making data machine-readable, local authorities can ensure that necessary information is readily available and accessible.

    Anneliese also emphasised the importance of data standardisation for local authorities in England.

    If we could standardise it would make life easier for everyone, our customers and for ourselves, be that local plan preparation, or dealing with a planning application or submitting one… We've got to standardise and digitise the simple things. But the value-added stuff, that's where a planner's intervention is required.

    Anneliese Hutchinson

    Service Director, Gateshead Council and President of the Planning Officers Society

    Having nationally agreed data standards would enable authorities to have a unified understanding of expectations, reducing the time spent on discussing and validating basic data. This approach could save significant costs associated with producing local plan evidence bases and allow more focus on critical planning discussions.

    Jim Fretwell, Global Product Manager for Objective Keyplan shared his expertise around how this is not a problem unique to the UK, citing the State of Victoria, Australia which has significantly improved its planning processes through spatially enabling their content and providing a platform for more digitisation.

    What is the Future of Digital Planning?

    The panelists emphasised the benefits of digital planning. By leveraging technology, local authorities can simplify processes, allocate resources efficiently, engage with communities, and make better-informed decisions. Digital planning allows authorities to harness the power of data, streamline operations, and create a more inclusive and collaborative planning environment.

    Graham shared his key takeaways which, in summary, emphasised the need to keep educating and promoting that:

    1. Data needs to be invested in, managed and valued as much as any other asset.
    2. Digital planning is a huge opportunity to improve the user experience of those engaging in planning.
    3. Value is so much broader than direct financial benefits.

      If you are interested in finding out more, you can watch the full Panel Discussion here or get in touch with a member of the Objective Keyplan team.