In cities across the UK digital technology is changing how we live, but the planning system is struggling to keep up. Airbnb and co-housing are changing the structure of our housing markets, yet we assess housing need in the same way we did 20 years ago. New digital street furniture is offering unlimited WiFi in exchange for targeted advertising, yet we still give them planning permission in the same way we would an ordinary advertising hoarding.
Of course, interest in the application of data and digital innovation in planning is gaining some momentum. The Housing White Paper dedicated an entire section to Digital Planning while the last Autumn Statement, announced funding of £11m for innovation in planning through the Planning Delivery Fund and the setup of a Geospatial Commission with £80m of funding to explore ways in which more open data can provide for the market to build new digital products and services.
Planning authorities are in a unique position to utilise data and digital tools to improve the life of citizens and their understanding of the planning system. In order to make the most of this opportunity, planning authorities needs to have in place the correct policies around data collection and use of digital technology in the built environment, as well as agile policies that can adapt to the fast pace at which new technology is changing the city.
If local plans are to deliver the most impact, they need to take full advantage of these technologies and create a policy framework to allow them to flourish. This has to be beyond a few broad-brush policies in the economic strategy, or general points in a Smart City plan, but across all documents at all levels and across all policies – in particular planning policies.
The new draft London Plan gives us an early opportunity to incorporate data and digital tools in the way we plan the city. Though we welcome the increased emphasis on the use of data for visualisation in 3d models, the plan misses out on the fundamental need to encourage robust data collection throughout the planning process. The better use, re-use and opening of data collected as part of the plan-making and planning application process would provide the raw material for others to innovate upon, in planning and across the other sectors. This, combined with cross-borough sharing of data, could unlock the potential of using digital tools to develop a better understanding of land supply, infrastructure requirements, planning gain and increase overall certainty and transparency around planning. By providing the incentives for using digital tools we could also enhance efficiency and transparency of public engagement in planning.
Alongside this, there is a need for policies to review the process of data collection in the public realm, from sensors, digital street furniture, advertising and other new technologies being embedded in the urban environment. This collection of data needs to be regulated so as to ensure that the data being collected will help provide better services without infringing on the privacy of citizens.
If the GLA and other better-resourced planning authorities are able to capitalise on the collection of data generated as part of the planning process, it would set a precedent not just to other planning authorities in the United Kingdom, but internationally on the use of data and digital tools to plan cities better. Our representations to the London Plan reflect these observations and focus on how policy could incorporate data collections part of the standard planning process and the wider benefits it could have on the city.