The impact of the digital age on planning

Ivan Tennant, Associate Director in our Economic Planning team looks at the impact of greater digitisation of the planning system as local authorities begin to embrace better use of digital tools.

Earlier this month the government announced that 10 councils will start the process of moving over to a new system of policy development that makes better use of digital tools to facilitate community engagement and make it clearer how development is regulated in their areas.

In so doing they are seeking to realise the vision for the digitisation of the planning system set out in their proposed planning reforms announced by government last autumn. Where other proposed reforms have met with resistance, this initiative is timely.

These are baby steps towards moving to a system in which data supporting plan-making is gathered electronically and the output – the Local Plan itself – is responsive to user demands rather than a static series of documents.

To planners, the promise of the digital age is that better quality information, in greater volumes, can be made available at faster speeds allowing not only a more accurate picture of current and future trends to emerge, but also a more subtle and nuanced understanding of place.

The importance of data

It has been argued that the planning profession itself is threatened with obsolescence unless it embraces this new age. An influential report by Policy Exchange last year noted the projections that planners typically use to forecast demand for homes and employment space are quickly rendered out of date by market trends, such as the impact of internet shopping on the high street or that of digital technology on the need for office space. Accessing, analysing, and interpreting data quickly is, therefore, key to rebutting suggestions that planners are drawing on irrelevant data to justify planning policy.

According to Euan Mills, MHCLG lead for the digitisation of the planning system, planners in the future will be part data-librarians, experts in managing data registers, and part analysts translating trends into evidence-based policy. He suggests that planning policies need to be treated as a “standalone algorithms, geo-located and linked to an evidence base… they should be up-datable individually, as the evidence changes, without the need for the Local Plan as a whole to be updated.”

One glaring example of the cumbersome nature of the current system is the median affordability ratios (MAR), released by MHCLG in March each year. Charting the relationship between house prices and incomes they provide a strong indication as to whether a housing market is in balance. Persistently high MAR indicate housing is unaffordable undermining the welfare of households.

If planners had access to reliable data that enabled them to monitor this metric on a daily rather than annual basis, this would enable local politicians to take earlier action where demand and supply imbalances are emerging in local housing markets and act quickly to prevent the social and economic damage caused by households forced to live in poor quality housing.

Emerging technologies may offer a solution. Rightmove is developing a tool called the Market Intelligence Centre that provides Local Authorities with a dashboard of indicators that allow them to monitor trends in rental and house prices in almost real time. Sharp increases in these metrics would provide an immediate indication that the local housing market was out of balance. Policy options could then be considered as to how to head-off worsening affordability.

Best Practice Solutions

Good examples exist of pioneering councils using digital solutions to better understand how efficiently local housing markets are working. Waltham Forest Council captures data on new home construction using geo-spatial information. Supported by the GovTech Catalyst Fund, council officers use digital tools to monitor the rate at which homes are being built. Combining this with up-to-date house price data would allow an assessment to be made of how responsive supply is to surges in demand.

Fast access to data flows is not, however, a panacea for all ills. Effective planning also requires observing trends over time. For example, a proper understanding of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the spatial orientation of our cities. This will require analysis of longitudinal trends in house prices, land values and commuting relationships in order to properly understand the changes in consumer behaviours to which planners should respond in order to deliver a mix of homes in the right places.

The criticism, therefore, that the flow of data has become so rapid that the evidence base on which a Local Plan rests is “out of date” the moment it is published is therefore a naive over-simplification of how planning should work. At the same time, where data is available that points to emerging trends that potentially have damaging socio-economic implications, local politicians should be able to access this so they are able to take early action.

Streamlining the System

The planning system imposes constraints on land supply, justified by promoting social welfare and protecting environmentally sensitive areas, but these policies carry significant economic and social costs. For example, the Green Belt around cities prevents homes being built close to centres of employment, increasing commuting journeys and severing households, particularly on lower incomes, from jobs for which they are qualified. It is therefore essential that such policies are properly justified.

The most potent of the government’s proposed planning reforms is therefore the push to adopt emerging technologies such as Land Tech to improve the flow of information about land that is available for development. This may be done by making planning policy, planning applications and maps detailing land condition and ownership machine readable.

Alistair Parvin of open systems lab is working in collaboration with Southwark Council, MHCLG and Future Cities Catapult to turn planning policies into code. The aim is to replace the current labyrinthine system with a user-friendly, enquiry-driven system that improves access to relevant information and guidance. In so doing making the planning system “simpler, better, more transparent and more democratic”.

Digital technologies of this kind have the potential to help planners meet key policy objectives in understanding and meeting the need for affordable housing, reducing the scope for market failure, and improving the capacity of the housing market to respond to fluctuations in demand.



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These are baby steps towards moving to a system in which data supporting plan-making is gathered electronically and the output – the Local Plan itself – is responsive to user demands rather than a static series of documents.
Ivan Tennant
Associate Director