Alex Tosetti 26 October 2020

Why digitising the planning process is a gamechanger

We’ve been here before: successive governments have come in and announced to big fanfare that they are going to revolutionise the planning process.

Cue grumbling from some corners of local government and the development industry about too much tinkering.

And it wasn’t much different this time when secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, Robert Jenrick, published his (much awaited) Planning White Paper in August.

But this time, it is different.

Central to the White Paper is a drive by the government to bring the planning process into the 21st century and encourage the use of digital technology and resources throughout. It’s one of the themes that has won unanimous support with the introduction of digital tools to speed up the planning process and maximise consultation reach.

If implemented correctly, the digitisation of the planning process will deal with key issues in the industry: lack of trust, transparency, over-complexity and under-engagement, while speeding up the process – getting our much-needed housing built and revitalising our high streets and town centres.

Mr Jenrick appears to be taking any and every opportunity (and rightly so) to bang the drum for ‘Plantech’ – most recently at the Creating Communities Conference a few weeks ago. But for all the government rhetoric – and with the government’s consultation on the White Paper closing at the end of this week – can Westminster really deliver its vision?

Get a move on: speeding up the process

Time and time again, we hear from both planning officers and developers talking about the inertia within the planning process and how resource and time-intensive it is.

But with digital tools already being adopted by some pioneering local authorities, government agencies and the private sector, it makes one believe that the government realise the clear and demonstrable benefits of the digital plantech sector.

These new tools can provide a ‘digital twin’ of local authority areas with a high level of accuracy. With Mr Jenrick trying to shake up the Local Plan process, using the right digital platforms will enable the visual communication of the three areas identified by an authority – for growth, renewal and protection – and allow the uploading of development in the form of 3D massing proposals so local communities can easily understand change and assess impacts.

And the technology is continually evolving – VU.CITY has just launched a virtual reality model of the Square Mile in the City of London. It puts buildings into a fully interactive virtual world, allowing planning officers to experience it at street level and at human scale. Through extensive laser scanning techniques, it captures every building, window and lamp post to 2cm accuracy to enable stakeholders to assess real-world impacts of schemes at the earliest stage of concept design. Being able to show proposals in this way helps to de-risk the process for both developers and councils, not least minimising the chance of a building being brought forward that is of poor design, unpopular with the local community, or caught up in an appeal process.

Haringey Council – a north London borough that has seen a lot of development and regeneration – has encouraged developers bringing forward applications to submit proposals in a way that can be uploaded to their VU.CITY platform so they can visualise the scheme and test feasibility at pre-app stage. Issues can be identified and discussed, solutions found and reassurance given in pre-planning in a way that wouldn’t be possible without this technology. Indeed, Haringey was one of the first councils to use digital visualisation technology in their planning committees during the Covid lockdown period and this may well be a trend that is continued by councils across the country. The fact that the VU.CITY platform is accurate and therefore trusted by all parties in its visual representation, could help ensure technical information is presented in an agnostic manner to a wider audience as part of the consultation process.

As a result, projects that are brought forward using the right digital tools encourage collaboration, helping to speed up the process overall and building a more trusting and reciprocal relationship between the developer and the council. Implemented in the right way, the digitisation of planning will also help developers by reducing the uncertainty of planning, speeding up crucial design decisions and understanding impacts early, thus reducing the huge financial investment that is traditionally required at the outset of a project.

There’s a lot said about how the digital visualisation of planning can restore public trust and confidence in developers and the planning system, we also need to make sure that the relationship between council and developer is equally positive, so that as an industry, we can work together to build the homes, community facilities and green spaces that are needed. Using digital tools to communicate and expand the catchment of citizen demographics is also important, so as not to undermine or dilute the democratisation of the planning process.

Giving your residents a say

For too long planning applications – and particularly Local Plans – have been presented as technical, detailed proposals that are squirreled away on councils’ planning portals. Comprising lots of separate documents in a variety of formats, planning documentation is often overly complex and lacking transparency. Indeed, most citizens would not even know what a Local Plan is, let alone where to find it.

Councils have been crying out for ways to boost local engagement – but it’s difficult to get people interested in something that’s tricky to understand. Showing planned development in 3D and in context engages residents and allows them to look at proposals from almost unlimited viewpoints, whether their front door or bedroom window or outside their favourite café.

It demystifies the process to build trust throughout: people are bought in and engaged in the right way so that everyone can be involved in plans to shape their community, something this government is keen to encourage.

I also like the idea of every town and city having an Urban Room, so that citizens can engage with the council and developers in the plan-making and development of their local area. From Local Plan policies to specific planning applications, we are now seeing movement from traditional 2D presentations to 3D digital representation. Going further, there has been an increase in the use of virtual reality headsets, which is encouraging younger people to take an interest in their built environment.

Roll on digital intervention for a smarter future

So we’re all agreed: bringing Britain’s planning system into the 21st century is vital.

Having met Mr Jenrick, it is clear that he is serious about fixing Britain’s planning system. These reforms could push the UK to become global leaders in digital planning and it is fantastic that the role of plantech to revolutionise and democratise the sector is being recognised at all levels of government. This is a massively positive step that will not only evolve the planning process but will also lead to much greater integration of the development of buildings and space with broader ‘smart’ initiatives to make our cities better places for everyone.

And with the COVID events of 2020 making tech ever-more present, now is the time for our first millennial cabinet minister to push plantech into the mainstream.

Alex Tosetti is chief commercial officer of VU.CITY

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