Euan Mills, Urban Design and Planning Lead at Future Cities Catapult, blogs about the launch event of Future of Planning.
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In late October we launched a major new programme of work on the Future of Planning, bringing together well versed professionals with frustrated innovators, to start thinking about how new technology could, and should, radically improve how we plan cities.
For years we’ve heard how the planning system is broken, how it hasn’t delivered the number of homes we need or the types of places we want to live in. Government has overhauled Development Rights, scrapped Regional Planning Authorities and consolidated national planning policy, but things still don’t seem to have improved.
The planning system today is a relic from the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which sets out that while anyone can own land, what you can do on that land requires permission from a Local Authority. Permission was only given if what you want to do is in line with a ‘plan’ which Local Authorities needed to produce.
Despite the radical transformations we’ve been through since then, the way we plan hasn’t changed much. Planning authorities are bursting at the seams, with boxes full of planning application drawings and supporting documents which are rarely read. Planning officers trawl through drawings measuring the area of flats, or distances between bedrooms; or spend hours deciding on specific sensitive viewpoints that may need assessed to make semi-informed decisions on the impacts of development on a conservation area or listed building.
We still rely solely on voluntary ‘call for sites’ to estimate the amount of development land available, against which we make critical policy decision on height and density; and developers scramble over each other offering copious amounts of money for land they have little certainty of what they will be allowed to build on, then rely on case officers being poorly informed about sales values, to negotiate affordable housing contributions to a minimum.
Planning authorities have been suffering from lack of reliable information and resources for decades. While small steps towards digitisation and standardisation such as Idox, Planning Portal and some over-simplistic urban models have nudged the planning process to the 21st century, these don’t come close to making the most of the opportunities we have, or to make the changes we need.
This is why our Future of Planning work will be focusing primarily on how we plan, rather than what we plan for. We believe that by creating a more digital and data-driven planning system we can achieve a more transparent, inclusive and certain planning process.
While our ambition is to transform the planning system whole, we won’t do this by pulling the rug under everyone’s feet. To achieve fundamental change, we need to start small, and incrementally patch up the existing system, while making sure that the sum of each and every increment will be significantly greater than their whole.
Our launch event was in two parts. One part, run jointly with NESTA and Wikihouse, got together about 30 innovators, frustrated with the planning system and with ideas of how to change it. After inspiring talks by Urban Intelligence, Podaris and Land Insight, who have already started to tackle some of these issues, innovators organised themselves into groups to develop early ideas for what and how we could do to make things better. Some focused on near-future incremental improvements, such as rethinking the Planning Notice, while others reconsidered the system as a whole and the purpose of planning in the first place.
Running in parallel to this, we also brought together for the first time our Future of Planning Sounding Board, made up of practitioners, from developers to community activists, planning administrators to community engagement professionals. Together we attempted to map out the system as a whole, and identify the barriers and opportunities of using new technology to help us plan better.
The day culminated with us bringing both groups together, where an open-mic format gave innovators two mins each to pitch their most radical ideas and describe how they could be implemented, followed by two mins of quick fire questions and answers from all those attending.
While this event was only the launch of what we envisage to be a long and in-depth programme of work for us, it crystallized our hunch that we are at a point in time where change is inevitable. With multinationals desperately keen to take over how we manage and plan our cities, the public sector and SME’s need to work together to stay one step ahead. To do this we need to develop a clear vision of the type of planning system that we want, and how we are going to get there, without simply ‘digitizing the bible’ as eloquently put by one of our attendees.