Last week the Local Digital Declaration was co-published with the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), Future Cities Catapult and another 40 organisations across the UK. Our interest in this declaration stemmed from the opportunity digital transformation has to create a diverse market for advanced urban services, in particular in the work we have been doing on the digitisation of the planning system.
The role of the planning system is to provide: guidance through policy, quality control through planning permissions and enforcement of decisions, and to ensure that our towns and neighbourhoods become great places to live. Instead, it is largely viewed as a barrier to housing delivery, a source of citizen discontent and an opaque and inconsistent decision making tool. Not only is planning one of the least digitised of all local government services, but also one that is in most desperate need of digitisation.
Due to its quasi-judicial nature, the heavy cuts imposed on planning departments and significant outsourcing and of skills and knowledge, local planning authorities have struggled to embrace ways of working that are reflective of the internet age. This is particularly concerning given that planning is one of the government services that most relies on the effective transfer of data. Every year local planning authorities across the UK deal with over 450,000 planning applications. Each planning application is made up of architectural drawings, visualisations, impact assessments, representations from stakeholders, comments from the local community and more. Yet this incredibly valuable data is undervalued, locked away in non-machine readable documents and filed away in proprietary file management systems.
Unlike other government services, planning is also the critical enabler of the wider built environment industry, which includes housing, construction, regeneration, infrastructure and transport. It is the only area where actors from all these industries come together. Digitisation of the planning system has the potential to not only improve local planning services, but unlock innovation and development across the whole built environment sector, helping solve some of the UK’s biggest challenges such as the housing crisis.
The ambitions set out in the Local Digital Declaration reflect this. They are not only relevant to the ‘planning service’, but to the wider digitisation of the built environment industry. Being such a data-rich sector, the free flow of data from architects, to the public sector, to local communities, to consultants, to engineers, to contractors, to facilities managers and to occupiers, is heavily dependent on the quality of the ‘digital plumbing.’ The ambition “to break our dependence on inflexible and expensive technology that doesn’t join up effectively”, for example, is fundamental to this.
Critically, the declaration will help steer the inevitable digitisation of the built environment industry in the direction where the diversity and the resilience of the ecosystem is baked in to its code. The next step is to start to deliver this. We need to create the open data standards, legal templates, funding mechanism, and software patterns that will form the building blocks of this new digital sector.
Tim-Berners Lee today famously regrets the way in which he built the ‘plumbing’ of the world wide web, and he has spent the last few years trying to fix this. In digitising the built environment industry we need to take the long view, and learn where we can from others that have tried to create open and equitable digital worlds. This declaration is a step in the right direction, and has the potential to help the UK lead the way in innovating in a complex and hugely important area.
Euan Mills is Urban Futures Lead at Future Cities Catapult.
Follow Euan on Twitter @EuanMills