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Levelling Up England: digital planning moves closer to reality

Out-Law Analysis | 19 May 2022 | 1:21 pm | 3 min. read

The digitisation of the planning process in England has moved a step closer with the recent publication of draft UK legislation, but critics might say the reforms promised under the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will not be implemented quickly enough.

The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (338 page /14.2MB PDF) was published after the Queen’s Speech at the state opening of parliament last week. Several proposals under the Bill will support the shift to digital planning, which has the potential to make providing information on planning applications faster and more efficient and speed-up decision making.

A shift to data, not documents

In its planning white paper published in August 2020, the UK government said that the current planning system is “reliant on documents, not data” and highlighted the need for it to be modernised.  The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill is the first real sign of a shift in that direction.

The Bill sets out measures to increase the use of high-quality data and digital services in the planning process – including powers to require compliance with data standards and to make planning data publicly available through an open licence. The Bill also includes a new power to prescribe the use of specific types of planning data software.

It is impossible to implement any kind of digital revolution without data being at the foundation. Change cannot happen without legislation and so the Bill is a welcome step towards true digital planning and away from the non-readable PDFs that have frustrated many local authorities keen to innovate and digitalise.

However, while the government has still to outline precise details of its “plans for transition”, it has said that “changes to planning procedures will begin to take place from 2024, once the Bill has Royal Assent and associated regulations and changes to national policy are in place”. Many planning professionals will be frustrated that the changes will not be implemented sooner.

Data standards

Under clause 75 of the Bill, provision is made for the Secretary of State to require local authorities to comply with data standards. Clause 148 creates a similar power for “relevant compulsory purchase data”. There remains a question of which set of standards the government will adopt.

There are existing standards in operation. For example, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) has endorsed the concept of data standards as part of a broader suite of ‘proptech’ standards, while the government already operates open standards for sharing and collaborating on documents. It may be that the government intends to develop new data standards specific to planning.

The ideal approach would be one that is consistent with existing industry standards, such as those approved for Building Information Modelling (BIM), as this will allow the seamless parallel development of digital twins.

Planning data obligations on the applicant

Clause 76 of the Bill provides local authorities with powers to require individuals to provide them with planning data that complies with an approved data standard. There is an exclusion for court documents, but no consideration of the applicant who simply lacks the technical ability to comply – that individual could be at risk of digital exclusion.

This issue is already concerning parliament and will need to be addressed alongside the development of relevant legislation

Open licences

Clause 77 of the Bill envisages a power to require certain planning data to be made publicly available under an approved open licence. This will be welcomed as it makes valuable data widely available free of charge. It will both help to develop data-driven policies and facilitate researchers in developing more sophisticated algorithms, and better analytic tools.

Software restrictions

Clause 78 of the Bill gives the power to the Secretary of State to make regulations which may prohibit or limit the use of software.

The wording is relatively vague but the explanatory note published alongside the Bill suggests this power will be used to ensure that standard data informs local plan development and to require publication of some documents in a standard format. 

This is the first time planning legislation has ever referred to software – it will be really interesting to see how this is developed in regulations.

Digital decision-making

Under clause 109 of the Bill, the Secretary of State would have the power to require or allow planning applications and associated documents to be made by electronic means. Clause 129 creates a similar power for documents submitted in an environmental outcomes report.

As with other reforms, this will be a welcome step for local authorities trying to set up automated systems that rely on a consistent type of data provision. However, the government will have to address the issue of digital exclusion if it wants the benefits of these reforms to be available to everyone participating in the planning system.

The Environment Act 2021 has a definition of a “digitally excluded person” and requires special adaptations to be in place – there is a case for similar provisions to apply under the new Bill.

A nod to the future

We are not quite living in a planning metaverse yet, but the policy paper issued alongside the Bill refers to data-driven planning software and new engagement tools coming in the future.

For anyone who is interested in how data could transform planning processes and policies there is a lot to look forward to