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Catapult criticises digital systems for planning


Mark Say Managing Editor

The Connected Places Catapult (CPC) has set out a vision for a new digital architecture to support the planning process in local government, along with some harsh criticisms of the current software offerings on the market.

House key on keyboard

It has published a report, Transforming the digital architecture of planning, which highlights the current shortcomings and sets out design principles and a detailed view of how a new system would work.

Among the criticisms made by the CPC – the government backed body that fosters the development of digital solutions for local government and transport – is that there are currently too few providers in the market for planning software. This has restrained the development of systems so they have not moved on from paper based processes, which has often made them difficult to use, especially when the process requires further data, and forced users into a series of workarounds.

In addition, it has provided limited interoperability between back office software and geographic information systems, held back the development of API based services and contributed to vendor lock-in. Systems are also often difficult for applicants to use.

“There are two key user groups in the planning process: back office planning staff and the applicant. The current system fails both,” the report says.

It also identifies limitations in the Planning Portal – which provides a gateway for all local planning authorities in England – saying that amendments to applications often require resubmissions, and that there are delays in processing payments. In turn this can cause friction and confusion between applicants and the planning authority.

Six principles

In response to these problems, CPC, sets out six design principles for a new system:

  • An emphasis on structured data rather than documents.
  • The use of a common data schema to break down the barriers to data sharing.
  • Open and standardised APIs to support the interoperability of services.
  • Modularity of software components to provide scope for continued development.
  • Privacy, security and fairness.
  • Ease of use.

It takes these further with the detailed description of an architecture for a system in which the various actions in planning are clustered into modules and communicate with each other via RESTful APIs.

The entry point would be a public facing submission portal through which many services would allow the public to submit, track, amend and withdraw applications, predominantly in a structured data format. Key features would include: an application validation module that could take account of planning constraints and policy; a database that could be local, national or federated; a decision module for planning officers to read, update and assess applications; an interface designed to reduce administrative tasks; and a public engagement module.

The report says a first step to delivering this would be to identify ways to move away from the current reliance on documents, then emphasise user needs in the design, along with central and local government and the plantech community thinking about what is really needed in a modern planning system.

It acknowledges that money will be an issue as local authorities cannot afford to develop and run their own instances of each new solution. The answer is likely to be in new institutions and business models to provide economies of scale in delivering and scaling up new solutions.

Transparent and efficient

“The vision for a new planning system we’ve set out, and following the principles and ideas within this report, will deliver a system that is more transparent, efficient and fit for purpose, and which will encourage innovation and competition and evolve over time,” the report says.

CPC data scientist Isaac Squires commented: “Often the barrier to adoption of new, innovative, data driven technologies is that the users don’t want it. However, this is not the case of digital planning.

“The technological fixes are not complex and many already exist across a number of other digital sectors. This report suggests possible solutions.”

Image from iStock

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