This is the third and final instalment of the UKPA’s series of events focused on the Housing Crisis. The UKPA was joined by representatives from the Local Authorities of Rochdale, Hounslow and Leeds, the Planning Portal, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DLUHC) (previously the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government), as well as members of PropTech companies including VU.CITY and Urban Intelligence.
Members from Development Victoria and their partner in PropTech, Archistar, were also present. They have been involved in digitising Australia’s planning system, and provided some excellent visual demonstrations and advice as the UK embarks on this digital journey.
With over 450,000 planning applications a year, the UK planning system needs updating into an efficient and transparent citizen-friendly tool. The Government’s White Paper ‘Planning For the Future’, published in 2020, sets out an aim to digitise the planning system over the next ten years for improved efficiency. The eventual goal is to reach the target of building 300,000 new homes a year. This is the largest reform attempted for 40 years, and the challenges and opportunities it presents are huge.
Learn, Develop, Adapt
As a segue into discussions surrounding the challenges in the planning process, insights into technology advancements and collaboration between the representatives, the roundtable received an update from DLUHC as to where to government’s own technological advancements in the planning system stood. These are pathfinder programs, RIPA (Reducing Invalid Planning Applications) and BOPS (Back-Office Planning System).
In addition to the implementation of technology systems, the government are providing support to Local Authorities through the first PropTech Engagement Fund. This will soon be followed by a second fund for 5 new councils to join the project team to design and begin implementing the RIPA/BOPS products.
Local authorities praised grants as the most efficient way to begin the technological transformation as it allows councils the time to test technology and mitigate risk; it is accepted that it is an exploratory and aspirational process, and Archistar and Development Victoria assert that the process contains a lot of trial and error.
Hounslow Council are one of the grant awardees from the Greater London Authority. The grant has allowed them to test hypotheses and identify new opportunities that weren’t captured in the White Papers. Working with PropTechs such as VU.CITY and Urban Intelligence, they have found new ways to demonstrate how learning, developing and adapting modern software can offer greater efficiency. Their collaboration was also recognised at the UK PropTech Awards this year, winning Digital Transformation Project of the Year. Rochdale and Leeds Councils are amongst others that have also started engagement with PropTechs.
Collaboration is a space that needs time, learning and testing to continue to be productive. Until now, there has been little opportunity for engagement between the private and public sector regarding these issues which has prevented and slowed the adoption of PropTech. However, this roundtable was a great step forward in starting the engagement and the UKPA will continue to facilitate opportunities for collaboration.
Data is Key
A huge advantage of software is that data can be unlocked and utilised effectively.
PropTech company VU.CITY work with 80% of London boroughs, and are active in 25 cities across the UK, including Rochdale. VU.CITY are aiming to alleviate the lack of trust citizens hold in the current system by visualising data through a combination of 3D visualisation, smart city planning and digital twins. The improved data usage and presentation will provide transparency to all levels of stakeholders, all of whom have different levels of understanding of the planning process and legislation, not to mention different priorities such as heritage and environmental issues.
Archistar, along with the Australian government department Development Victoria, worked with private property developers and real estate companies to begin Australia’s digital transformation. Development Victoria oversees a demographic six times that of London, and their insights were that the key to success lies in grassroots developers, providing them with education that will upgrade the whole industry with new skills.
Archistar highlighted that grey areas in the planning process that may not be noticed in a paper-based world caused problems when trying to convert the process into code. Updating and shifting rules and legislation to make them airtight for the coding process has been a necessity for such a large density population as Victoria. Doing so in the UK will involve collaboration and education within both the PropTech sphere and at government level.
Desipite the government grants available, funding remains a key challenge. It is difficult to generate metrics for investment and reassurance on ROI as these processes take years to implement. The emphasis on grassroots developers being given tools and education on PropTech, and PlanTech, and wider legislative policy reflecting this education cannot be understated. Given time, this would also aid with the issue of hesitancy and lack of understanding at top levels of both private corporations and councils.
It was suggested that bodies such as the UKPA and DLUHC could undertake independent research as to where existing services in local councils could benefit from digital transformation so that PropTechs can better support local councils.
The scale of digitally transforming the planning system means there is ample opportunity for innovation and creativity, and it is clear there is enthusiasm from local councils and PropTech companies to continue working together to bring these reforms to life.