Levelling up – how technology can help

Apex Levelling up

The phrase ‘levelling up’ has been bandied around quite a bit since the government first revealed its white paper of the same name – and it seems that technology will be at the heart of any improvement in the planning arena…

The government’s recent levelling up white paper made much of improving the planning system, in a bid to provide equal opportunities across the country. And indeed, the Prime Minister took himself on a tour of the UK to assess how opportunities could be spread more fairly across the country.

Where the levelling up white paper spoke about the planning process, it mooted a complete system change. And at the heart of that change is technology. It seems that the planning process had been lost in the land that time forgot, and where other industries had picked up the technology mantle far earlier, planning was still lagging behind. With lockdown, the introduction of virtual planning meetings made a move in the right direction to bring an archaic system firmly into the 21st century. But it was only an interim facility, allowed for within the Coronavirus Act 2020 and was not made permanent, despite calls to the contrary from across the planning profession and even some parts of the government – so there is much still to be done.

One example is a new digital land mapping data platform, which is set to be ready in the next few months. The platform, which is designed to help local plan work, comes under the remit of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC).

Paul Downey, head of digital land at the DLUHC, was speaking virtually at the Planning Portal’s Spring Conference about the future of planning and local plans when he made the following comment: The aim of the platform is to ‘create services to inform planning and housing decisions in England’. You can already see a prototype of the software at www.digital-land.info.

Users can look at the map after applying filters that can show how land is used and what constraints it has on its use – showing up AONB, conservation areas, ancient woodland, Green Belt land, as well as Listed buildings.

Being able to visually see constraints at the touch of a button will make it easier for local plans to be formulated – and it seems as if this is just the tip of the iceberg, as Downey added that there were ‘about 300 things’ that can affect planning applications.

During the same conference, Graham Stallwood, director of operations at the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) said he saw no reason why the digitising of the data could not result in ‘’what is the equivalent of a national plan’’.

This can only be good news for anyone involved in the planning sector, to address current inefficiencies within the process. Indeed, at the same conference, May N Leow, digital planning head of product at the DLUHC, said that their aim was to modernise the planning profession, and make it more attractive to work within the public sector. She said that addressing the inefficiency of the public system would let planning officers ‘’work on the things that they went into planning for, like regeneration and the environmental aspect of it”.

She pointed out that as much as 80% of a planning officer’s job is looking at invalid applications, and that digitising the process would negate much of this.

Smart buildings

Another part of the levelling up process will be considering the buildings themselves. An overhaul is needed in order to meet new regulations and levelling up plans – and it is being said that using smart technologies can cut costs and improve energy efficiency as well as operational efficiency.

And it seems that the benefits are clear to see. According to research, buildings that utilise clean air technology can see productivity rise by 11% – and cognitive scores increasing by an incredible 101%. This is a great example of a smart building in action and where it can make a difference to the work environment, not just a dwelling house – the building must have in place ventilation, filtration, and disinfection technology, which in turn must be supplied with the correct data around occupancy measuring solution and air quality to work at its optimum level.

Government, at this time, clearly believe that technology should be at the heart of creating a planning process fit for the 21st century and beyond, and creating the kind of sustainable, healthy buildings we need. It remains to be seen whether funding will be made available to the public sector particularly to ensure it can afford to embrace it.

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