Smarter Planning for Smarter Cities roundtable

Through winter 2016-17, with the backing of LB Ealing and LB Southwark, Future of London interviewed public- and private-sector planning professionals to understand the inefficiencies and blockages in development management – and to unearth proven and potential ways to improve.

Those findings are summarised here (PDF) and fed into a senior roundtable on 7 March. At the session, hosted by LB Southwark, cross-sector representatives debated the barriers to implementing new processes, then focused on how to overcome them. The discussion is summarised below.

Achieving the right level of standardisation

Participants agreed that having standard guidelines and technology across boroughs would make development management better for officers and applicants. However, there’s the obvious challenge of how to do that – as well as a tension between standardisation as an attractive, tidy solution vs. the complex realities of the built environment and local issues.

When it comes to standard development guidelines, local context is important and inescapable. Participants pointed out that standard guidelines could clash with conservation considerations; too much standardisation also risks oversimplifying or ignoring what’s special about an area. These grey areas – hard to define and even harder to box up – are the meat of development management, requiring human judgment and informed decision-making beyond guidelines.

City of Westminster has several conservation areas, each with specific planning considerations.

Improving use of data and technology

Standardising development guidelines will be challenging, but there is scope for quick wins in improving the use data and technology. For one, local authorities hold detailed data on property within their boundaries, but many haven’t made this accessible. Rather than an applicant supplying property details to the borough, one participant argued it would be more efficient for the borough to supply details it already holds to the applicant.

Further, interactive maps can visualise and integrate all relevant borough data. Some authorities, such as LB Tower Hamlets (below) already have interactive maps showing conservation areas, opportunity areas, site application histories, proposed and current developments. Enhancing maps with links to planning application and policy documents would give users a more seamless experience, especially if policy clauses pop up where relevant. People are used to integrated, responsive technology – it’s up to boroughs to deliver it.

There’s also potential for a virtuous cycle: most borough data misses applicant experiences of development management. Boroughs have contact details for all applicants; gathering feedback from them and using it to improve services is a logical next step.

LB Tower Hamlets’ Environment & Planning map (link)

Making online portals work for users

Linked to data and tech, digital systems for submitting and managing planning applications, such as Planning Portal and Idox, have a major role. Most applications are submitted online and these services have helped boroughs move towards paperless working. But several participants felt that digital systems – operated by private companies or joint ventures – haven’t evolved to meet applicant and borough needs or to take advantage of new technology.

For example, one borough reported that its system doesn’t send notifications when applicants upload new supporting documents; in another, officers must upload documents on behalf of applicants, who are prevented from updating their own case file. Digital systems also tend to be separated from interactive maps and other borough data, and could be far better integrated.

Digital systems are integral to achieving data integration, standardisation and more efficient workflow. With more comprehensive, user-friendly systems, applicants could easily collect all information relevant to their project and contribute to their own case files. Applicants self-serving by compiling their own data could lead to a system of self-certification; one borough is exploring this.

Communicating clearly

Participants agreed that improvements to data and systems will be more effective if accompanied by clearer language and better communication between parties. From the perspective of householders or those submitting minor applications, guidance is often unclear or non-existent; borough participants were particularly concerned about the quality of guidance given for permitted development. For the public, finding planning applications can be difficult; understanding the technical jargon and suite of documents associated with each is harder. Local plans and application packages, usually lengthy and written to satisfy inspection, alienate lay people without in-depth planning knowledge.

The applicant side isn’t immune. On larger schemes, contractors struggle to comprehend how to fulfil conditions such as Construction Management Plans; bringing contractors in early to work through the process with boroughs isn’t an option, since they usually aren’t commissioned until after permission is granted.

To overcome these barriers, participants called for clearer policy documents and graphical guidance. One suggested householder extension guidance by housing type, taking advantage of London’s recurring building stock (e.g. guidance for a four-bedroom Victorian terraced home). Another local authority is planning to publish a ‘plain English’ version of its local plan.

At the pan-London level, participants agreed that they need to project a unified voice to central government and to lobby more effectively on behalf of London’s planning needs.

Working with others

Some borough participants also reported strained or even fractious relationships with other council departments. Some struggle to get information or assistance from departments whose expertise is integral to planning applications, such as transport or environmental health – with their own internal pressures, workloads and staff shortages, this is understandable. Are there ways past the impasse?

Furthermore, while licencing, building control, and planning are separate entities with different responsibilities, the public tends to see them all as ‘planning’. A more joined-up approach with these departments could improve customer experiences; some participants felt that licencing could take a more prominent role, given its flexibility to respond to the fast-changing nature of building uses.

Boroughs already compete for qualified staff, and contractor tax reform could make resourcing – especially at senior levels – even tougher. One participant noted that social services across London have an agreement about how to pay agency staff, which planning departments might replicate.

The private sector could also be a source of expertise and support. As customers, their input into improving development management is highly relevant, and they may have access to technology and resource to drive technological change and innovation.

It should be noted that “trust” (or the lack thereof) was a recurring theme – between departments, with applicants and across sectors. With more transparent guidelines and better data, entities like Future of London can help bring partners together to build the trust required for the next level of system change.  

 

If you’re interested in any of piloting new development management technology; lobbying central government for change; improving digital systems; or standardising guidance, contact amanda@futureoflondon.org.uk. We’ll connect you with working groups focused on these areas and add you to our network of planning professionals, which meets quarterly.

We’ll also be exploring how the public sector can understand, commission and use new technology in our upcoming Smart Cities programme. Watch for more information on our website or contact alexei@futureoflondon.org.uk for details.