When it comes to tech, the Planning Industry can be notoriously a little slow on the uptake. That’s not to say that there aren’t some incredible technological advances being made, just that these are taking a little time to filter through the industry. And for those who see the potential of planning technology that can be very frustrating. However, as Covid-19 struck and the complete immobility of Lockdown descended, the very landscape of the Planning Industry began to alter. Will Lockdown be what it takes for Planning to finally embrace tech change?
Many planning processes are tied into legislation that has been in place for years. Updating these regulations is challenging and cumbersome, and the result is that most remain unchanged. But as the majority of legislation governing the Planning Industry was formulated decades ago, it often doesn’t allow space to digitise. This is an issue when new technological tools are becoming available, and can’t be utilised without difficulty. When change in an industry tends to be sluggish, that can breed a slight sense of reluctance, or hesitation, to break away from the traditional way of doing things.
However, Lockdown has prevented many planning processes from carrying on as before. For instance, the regulations around planning committees require physical attendance from all necessary parties, and the ban on public gatherings immediately made this a no-go. To stop things grinding to a complete standstill, things needed to be done remotely. As a result, the Coronavirus Act 2020 was passed into law in March 2020 and by April, councils were able to move their committees online, without the potential of having all their decisions challenged and overturned at a later date. Within weeks of Lockdown being implemented, an Act had been drawn up, proposed, and ratified, allowing a drastic change to existing planning legislation; indisputable proof that it can be done. But just because it has been proven change can be made, doesn’t mean it has been proven that it should. How effective is a public planning forum in a virtual environment?
Any aspect of the planning process that involves public engagement and discussion is crucial – it’s essential that the public are able to be involved in development proposals and have their opinion heard. As Ashleigh Cook, Senior Planner at Iceni Projects and lead of Iceni Futures (an Iceni sector group that focuses on PropTech and PlanTech), suggests, ‘anyone and everyone should be able to participate in consultation’. The difficulty with public engagement is availability. For the public to be able to physically attend, any meetings need to be held out of working hours. However, this requires planning consultants and officers to hold public meetings outside their own working hours, which, whilst not impossible, is not ideal. Things like remote planning committees and online consultations can help remedy this. ‘For too long consultations have been a very traditional meeting in a town hall, typically hosted in the middle of the day, when most people are unable to visit’, says Ashleigh, ‘digital technology can help to open up consultations to all’.
But there are both benefits and drawbacks to virtual public meetings. It’s important to remember whilst remote meetings are more accessible to people with restricted movement, or those without transport, points out Mark Gibney, Head of London Planning at Avison Young, they can serve to alienate people without digital access. In order for the continuation of remote public consultations, there needs to be a balance, a mix of physical attendance, and remote access. Whilst it would be nice for remote public planning meetings to continue, face-to-face public consultations are likely to remain the norm. As Mark jokingly suggests, ‘people like to stand in a room and point fingers!’. There needs to be an avenue for people to feel physically involved in the planning process, whilst also providing remote access for people who would otherwise not be able to attend. Once this balance has been struck, and the foundation has been laid for virtual planning processes, the manner in which the Planning Industry engages with the public can start to evolve.
Once committees and consultations can be set up via video link, other more complex forms of technology can follow. Ashleigh Cook gives the examples of anything from using computer game platforms to help children engage with developments (such as with proposed school developments), to VR headsets for a more interactive viewing. It’s not just enough to have public awareness of planning proposals, there has to be public understanding as well. This can be achieved through software such as Vu. City – a 3D modeling software that shows cities in their entirety, along with any pending or consented planning permissions. This will allow people to see what the landscape of the city will look like in 6 months, a year. This is far more comprehensive than the CGI models favoured currently and could be an interactive way of helping the public get a good understanding of proposed developments and how they will look.
Finding the right balance between physical and virtual elements will allow us to create committees and public consultations that are more accessible, agile, and flexible, speeding up decision making and ensuring that the public can properly engage with the process. That can open up the door to utilising software to increase public understanding and interest in development proposals. Through embracing digital advancements, the Planning Industry can create a more publicly involved and informed planning process.
These changes wrought by Lockdown won’t just be contained to the format of planning committees and consultations, but will also alter the manner in which Planners themselves work. In the words of Mark Gibney, ‘Zoom and Microsoft Teams are here to stay’. Video calls, Zoom meetings, working from home; these are all things that have now been proven to work, and Avison Young for one is planning on embracing the digital office. ‘As a firm, we’re going to develop a greater reliance on tech going forward’, says Mark, ‘we’ll use any digital tech that will help improve the way we work’.
I don’t think they’re the only ones. Rather than a traditional 9-5 in the office, the Industry is shifting towards flexible working and checking in remotely, making Planning more agile and adaptable. This is only the start. This willingness to introduce technology and remote working into the heart of Planning, changing the working patterns of Planners, and the manner in which they engage with the public, is the beginning of a positive shift towards a tech friendly Planning Industry. Maybe in a year we’ll see 3D-modelling software available to every council, and VR headsets to make proposals more interactive, and maybe that will take a little more time. Either way, every step is a little closer to a Planning Industry that is open to embracing tech change. And that can only be a good thing.
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