The future of planning: lean, digital and democratic

Everyone hates the planning system. In fact, when it comes to the issue of housing and development, that may be the only thing that everyone does agree on.

Developers and professionals hate the planning process because, to them, it represents an opaque, risky, bureaucratic and highly politicised barrier, which costs them huge amounts of time and money to negotiate. 

Communities hate it because the system seems to be locked into a Faustian pact with speculative property developers — large companies building poor quality, unaffordable homes for considerable profit. Communities sense instinctively that regardless of whatever ‘consultation’ may take place along the way, ultimately their voices will have little or no impact on the basic outcome. Ultimately, they will bear the external costs of development, but have little stake in the rewards. It should not surprise us that the result is conflict, and a breakdown of trust. For most citizens, the default mode of engagement in planning is protest.

Even planners hate the planning system. They find themselves caught in the middle, endlessly bashed by companies, media and politicians and overburdened with the daily work of managing these conflicts, negotiating for crumbs instead of engaging in the work they actually became planners to do: planning

But even if we are all united in our dissatisfaction with our current ‘byzantine’ planning system, it is much harder to agree what might be done to change it, and how we might realistically go about making that change happen. 

Of course, there will always be those who argue we should simply get rid of the planning system altogether, or allow developers to bypass it. Faced with a crisis, there will always be someone prepared to argue that democracy is an inconvenient luxury. In the post-Brexit climate, that might not be as politically unthinkable as it previously has been. But to scrap the planning system would ultimately be a disaster, both for society, for the environment and, in the long run, for the economy too. At the core of the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act are two fundamentally robust principles: 

  1. That there should be democratic control over development, allowing decisions about our environment to be made based on our strategic long-term success as a society, rather than just the immediate self-interest of whoever owns land at the time.
  2. That the value we the people create through giving our common consent for land use should be recaptured and reinvested for the common good, for example, to pay for public goods such as infrastructure and parks.

Perhaps then the problem is not the political basis of planning itself, but the instruments through which we do it, which haven’t changed much since they were created almost 70 years ago. Because, while the tools haven’t changed, the world has. 

That’s why, at the end of October, Nesta, in collaboration with the Future Cities Catapult and WikiHouse Foundation, convened a workshop to address exactly this topic: not the politics of planning, but the mechanics of the planning system itself, and specifically what digitisation might mean for its future.

The Innovators Panel workshop brought together an extraordinary collection of people from the public, private and civic sectors, both incumbents and radicals, to share ideas, debate and brainstorm. The ideas that were discussed ranged from smaller design ‘patches’ to complete redesign of the system’s core architecture. They combined level-headed pragmatism with a serious ambition to make planning work, even to make it popular. They instinctively rejected the idea that digital technology is some kind of magic bullet, but also recognised that digitisation presents tangible challenges and opportunities to transform how complex systems work. All of them merit serious exploration, but here are a few of the key ideas, in takeaway form:

Improve the user experience

As always, when it comes to innovation, a good place to start is with the user. As Dan Hill, Lara Salinas, Finn Williams and others have pointed out, the current way most of us interface with the planning system is almost humorously bad: a lonely piece of A4 paper, cable-tied to a lamp-post outside your house. It’s not just that any kind of response takes a commitment of time that a busy person is unlikely to bother with, it’s also that the notice feels somewhat like a tacit threat; the bureaucrat’s equivalent of leaving a horse’s head on your pillow. No wonder then that generally the only responses to most planning applications are negative ones.

There is clearly room here to explore new web applications, new ways for citizens to be notified, to visualise and comment on development. That question has begun to be explored by, for example, the Open Planning project.

Make planning information machine-readable

Digitisation means more than just ‘scanning it in’. At present, huge amounts of work goes into local plans, reports, documents and codes which are then buried away into PDFs, and often subsequently ignored. The design codes of the future will be written as… well, code; live-viewable, collaboratively editable and machine-readable on the web, with open ‘APIs’ (an interface that allows other web applications to go and read it, not just a human). This is something being worked on by startup Urban Intelligence and the Google spin-out, Flux. It is important, because it can reduce the dependence on professional intermediaries to trawl through and interpret documents. Imagine a map of your town where every site, every building, every planning code and every proposed project is viewable as a simple 3D wireframe. Whenever any relevant piece of legislation or data changes, the wireframe is instantly updated. All the text, photographs and any other information is tagged, and accessible through an open API, so any application can read it. 

Get our data together

Before we can have a proper conversation about our built environment, we will all need to be looking at the same transparent version of ‘truth’. To do that, we need clear, complete, canonical data standards and registers that can then be accessed by GIS (Geographic Information System) software. Instead of talking about privatising the Land Registry, we need to be talking about the huge potential value to the UK economy of opening it up. In exchange, government would put in place obligations on the private sector to share its data back, within clear standards. It’s time to recognise that these kinds of digital infrastructures are the backbone of our future economy: the roads and railways of the 21st century, and we need to invest in them.

I strongly recommend watching Tom Loosemore’s talk on ‘Government as a Platform’, based on work done by his team at the Government Digital Service. It proposes a deeply robust vision for the role of data registers and the role of effective governments in the digital age. Also worth checking out is the work of Land Insights, a private company which is beginning to build this kind of infrastructure, compiling all land data into one simple interface.

Rules-based planning

When it comes to technological innovation, our tendency is to simply bolt new tools onto old systems, like fitting alloy wheels onto a horse and cart. What is easily missed is the way that different technologies enable the underlying system to function in a fundamentally different way. Planning is no exception.

The UK planning system was designed before personal computers or the internet. It was simply taken for granted that every development had to be manually administrated, to ensure that it complied with the stated objectives. In other words: if you want to develop, you have to ask for permission first. 

We’re so used to this consenting system that it is easy to forget how strange it is. It would be rather like the referee in a game of football refusing to tell the players the rules of play, or where the white lines are, and instead insisting that players ask permission before they touch the ball.

The first problem with this is that it is opaque, inconsistent and unpredictable. The answer you get will vary hugely depending on where you are, who you ask and when you ask them. It can be influenced by anything, such as whether there is a local election coming up, even whether the planning committee like the colour blue or not. That opacity comes at a tangible cost, in both money and trust. 

The second problem is that it means that every development charge (the contribution paid back to the public) is individually negotiated. This effectively obliges the large private developers to try to put pressure on the local planners, to negotiate-down the amount of (for example) affordable housing contribution they make as far as they can. 

As you’d expect, they usually win. 

What digitisation makes possible is to flip this process around: to switch from a manual, negotiated consent process to one which, for most development sites, sets the rules upfront. In the same way that permitted development rights create an outline design code that developers have to comply with, so on most sites, site-specific design codes could be used. 

This isn’t fictional  —  in fact it is already being explored in the Netherlands and parts of the UK. As part of their Graven Hill self and custom-build pilot project, Cherwell District Council has assigned to each site a ‘plot passport’, setting out the rules of development. As long as developments stay within the rules, there is no need to apply for further planning permission.

The reason this is powerful is because it means that, instead of sitting downstream of the market, simply reacting and protesting, planners and citizens can move upstream of the market, debating and setting proactive design codes for development of sites, based on baseline market data. Those rules are ‘parametric’ —  that means they can flex dynamically with external variables. For example, a site’s design code can include a pre-set equation, which calculates the development charges (if appropriate) based on market value. There’s no negotiation — the developer either takes it or leaves it. This is good news for the market, because it eliminates risk, but it is also good news for democracy, as it makes the deal transparent, and puts strategic planning and democratic discourse into a proactive role, allowing planners and citizens to spend less time fighting, and more time planning.

Performance-based planning

The idea of bringing more data into the planning process is perhaps the most tired concept associated with the idea of digital urban planning. Behind the confusing noise of ‘big data’ and ‘smart cities’, there remains a crucial unanswered question: how could we allow digital planning platforms to draw on real data, so planning codes and decisions can be determined on the basis of their evidenced likely impact on the world, rather than in isolation based on hunch or short-term political guesswork. For example, by showing the likely impact of a decision on flooding, pollution, local schools and infrastructure, or even jobs and the local economy five, ten, or 20 years into the future.

Long term, the true implications of sharing and using these kinds of data are potentially profound. We can imagine a planning system where, increasingly, development can be assessed and controlled not through blunt instruments such as land use classes, but by its impact on the local community, environment and economy. 

Direct democratic planning

Perhaps the most interesting  —  albeit challenging  —  potential application of digital innovation in planning is around the question of whether we could  —  or should  —  allow citizens to participate more directly in decision-making. The case for more democratic involvement in planning isn’t just utopian wishful thinking, it is strategically essential. If we want to unlock more land for development, to densify our cities, and to break the stalemate of NIMBYism, and turn it into YIMBYism, the answer is not to bullishly override citizens' concerns, but to harness their support. Not less, but more democracy. 

The question is, how? Early experiments in civic participation in planning have largely been patched onto the existing consultation process, allowing citizens to comment on schemes and get involved in proposing or shaping ideas. Interesting as those experiments are, there is also a naivety about them. There is no real power behind the tools. Wallpapered on top of the existing process, they don’t really have much affect on its underlying structure. They certainly don’t do anything to unlock the fundamental value and trust deficit that characterises our broken 20th century planning and development complex. 

By contrast, the Localism Act 2011 and the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 created a series of rights that did put real power into the hands of communities, such as the Right to Build. Yet actual adoption of these rights is still relatively low. They remain simply too difficult and complex for many citizens  —  and many local authorities  —  to engage with. It’s not difficult to imagine the creation of new government web tools to support those rights. For example, creating, a government web platform that would make it simpler for communities and local authorities to identify small sites, assign design codes, hold local referenda or arrange promotion of sites directly for local families and their children to build affordable homes for themselves. By bringing these activities onto the web, it becomes possible to ensure greater transparency, and lower the cost of participation and management (almost to zero).

Even if that kind of direct citizen participation in planning doesn’t ever work, what I suspect we will find anyway is that the process of digitisation will inevitably lead to more subsidiarity of governance in the built environment. Planners may find that by setting clear and rigid rules upstream, it is simply much easier to push more decision-making downwards, allowing them to focus on what matters. It’s not ‘localism’ as such — it’s just making sure the correct decision is made at the appropriate level; whether that level be national, regional, town, neighbourhood or individual household.

‘Planning 2.0' —  a Great British Reform

The case for digital reform of the UK planning system is not a techno-utopian dream, nor is it a technology sector sales pitch. It is urgent, and critical to the success of the UK economy. 

Whether we like it or not, we now find ourselves in the early stages of a digital industrial revolution: the way we plan and regulate our built environment will  be reinvented in the next two decades. The decision we face is not whether we want this to happen but whether we want it to be led by a handful of Silicon Valley startups or by government, industry and citizens working together. 

Unless government takes the lead, elected authorities will increasingly find themselves powerless — attempting to govern a world written in code armed with only a pencil.

And it doesn’t need to be that difficult or expensive. The total cost of developing these kinds of digital civic infrastructure would be a tiny fraction of the annual costs of our current system  —  the pain of which is felt across industry and government. Equally, many of these ideas require no legislative change at all, just investment, coordination and leadership. 

So how might it realistically be done? One proposal put forward at the workshop was this: could the UK government convene a Framers Convention, a review team bringing together designers, technologists, planners, legal experts, citizens, civil servants and politicians from across the political spectrum to debate, design, prototype and test a new, open-source planning infrastructure for the UK. Ideas would be openly shared, tested, thrown-out, forked and built-upon. The result would not be a 3,000 page report, but working, tested prototypes of a new planning infrastructure. Only at the end of this prototyping and piloting process would any necessary legislative changes be brought about under a new 2021 Planning Act. 

Who would pay for it? If necessary, all of us. The Convention could even be crowdfunded, with contributions from local government, private industry and citizens matched by central government funds. After all, a better planning system is something that  —  it turns out  —  all of us believe in.

With thanks to all those who contributed ideas, thinking and examples at the Urban Innovators Event. Follow Future Cities Catapult’s ongoing work to advance this debate here.

Note: Nesta has committed to funding the Wikihouse Foundation £50,000 to support the development of the OpenChain, the first fully digitised supply chain for housebuilding. As part of our partnership with the Wikihouse Foundation, we are holding three workshops on topics of mutual interest over the course of the year. This was the second workshop, following a workshop on distributed manufacturing held in June. 


Alastair Parvin

Alastair Parvin is a strategic designer and the co-founder of WikiHouse Foundation. He is currently working on better housing systems, open source design, distributed production, and h…