More than 70,000 planning applications passed through London’s local authorities in the year up to September 2018, for projects ranging from changes to listed buildings to householder developments to major mixed-use schemes. 
As ‘smart cities‘ concepts take off in the public sector, local authorities are increasingly keen to implement technology and new ways of working within development management. Not only can more efficient approaches help reallocate staff time to other planning tasks, they can drastically improve experiences for applicants.
On 26 November, Future of London and LB Southwark held a joint event to showcase innovative, replicable systems and toolkits designed to improve development management.
A nation-wide strategy
Bringing a national perspective, Pete Latham, Head of Digital Land Policy at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), opened with a summary of central government’s ambitions to transform the planning system. Key to building better services is giving access to current, trustworthy data such as maps and information about land.
The MHCLG has also published a Local Digital Declaration to encourage transparent working, creating joined-up planning tools, and finding more effective ways of delivering services – with funding available to support projects in these areas. As of writing, 140 local authorities have signed the declaration and the first round of funding will support 16 projects.
An artificial intelligence planning assistant
Among the upcoming projects are two involving virtual assistants, or ‘chatbots’, something Milton Keynes Council’s planning team has been trialling this year after receiving £115,000 of MHCLG funding.
Brett Leahy, Chief Planner, explained that the chatbot is intended to reduce demands on customer service and officers. Currently, the chatbot can answer questions about planning applications (e.g. when is it going to committee? what are the site constraints?) Early results are positive: planning officers field fewer questions about applications because applicants and customer service teams can quickly ask the chatbot instead.
The next upgrade is to have the chatbot validate minor planning applications, which involves complex programming to help it understand differences between document types. After that, it will be tasked with assessing minor applications and householder permitted development, potentially giving applicants responses in a matter of minutes rather than weeks.
Transforming transport assessments
Back in the capital, Transport for London is aiming to overhaul how transport assessments are done throughout the city. Gavin McLaughlin, Principal Planner, wants applicants to shorten and simplify these overly long and highly technical documents, aligning them to TfL’s Healthy Streets criteria and the London Plan.
To do this, TfL is updating its website with clearer guidance for consultants, applicants, boroughs and the general public, as well as building a transport assessment template which considers three different scales of travel:
- Around the site and immediate surroundings
- Within an ‘active travel zone’, a 20-minute cycle around the site, focusing on access of key destinations like town centres and GPs
- Networking/London-wide level
TfL will also offer an ‘initial screening’ process for applicants prior to making an application, consisting of in-person meetings to define key destinations and explain TfL requirements.
Overhauling application processes and developing an open data standard
In LB Hackney, Head of Digital and Data Matthew Cain and his team are reworking the council’s IT systems to make them more flexible and adaptable for the future. The first strand of the project, supported by £200,000 of MHCLG funding, involves redesigning the process of submitting a planning application. Currently a confusing journey involving multiple online portals, documents, and steps, around 65% of applications arrive invalid and 40% of inbound calls/emails are to enquire about the status of applications. The new planning application portal will be publicly tested in January.
After that, the team will redesign the systems used to administer planning applications at the officer end; finally, they’ll develop an open data standard to make it easier to share data between different systems and local authorities, with £250,000 of Corporation of London funding. LB Hackney champions openness in its approach, publishing its work on github so others can use, adapt or improve it.
Help with householder applications
Event host LB Southwark is also keen to make the planning application process smoother for all involved, starting with householder applications. Juliet Seymour, Planning Policy Manager, pointed out the inefficiency of the existing process whereby applicants are asked to supply information the council already holds, such as whether a property is a listed building or in a conservation area. With funding from Future Cities Catapult, LB Southwark has been working with Open Systems Lab to create Planx, a more user-friendly portal for applicants that taps into this council data.
Planx isn’t just user-friendly for applicants: Open Systems Lab has designed the software so officers themselves can easily add other common planning queries and decision trees without knowing how to write code. Alastair Parvin, CEO at Open Systems Lab, explained that Planx uses a building’s postcode to determine the planning context, then guides applicants to input information about their proposed development through plain English prompts and images to illustrate complex or technical concepts. From this, applicants receive advice about whether or not they need a to submit an application.
Many new planning systems and toolkits require reliable, open access to quality data. National and local governments hold some useful data, but it is not held in a single place, can be difficult to find, and may not be digitised.
Even data that has been digitised may be held on platforms that experience downtime or can’t share data with other software. More effective data digitisation and open data standards will make it easier to implement ‘smarter’ planning systems more widely.
In the meantime, the toolkits on display at the event offer replicable solutions for local authorities seeking more modern, user-friendly approaches to development management.
See LB Southwark’s YouTube account for video of the speakers:
And see slides from the event on Slideshare:
 Data from gov.uk Table P124A: planning decisions by development type and local authority for the year ending September 2018.