"There are several specific areas of the planning system where standardisation and systems is set to make a radical difference."
The Government’s reforms to speed up the town planning process has been widely heralded. Just before Christmas, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Michael Gove made plain his ambition to reduce delays in planning decision-making. The pressure is on local planning authorities to work smarter and faster.
But what are less well known are accompanying changes to standardise planning data. Not only will these play an integral part in speeding up planning but the changes could benefit the homebuying process, by making planning data publicly available.
Companies across the property industry established The Open Property Data Association (OPDA) last year to help make the process of accessing property data simpler and quicker. We warmly welcome the move towards more open planning data which we hope will also ease the homebuying process.
The Levelling Up and Regeneration Act 2023, enacted last autumn, paves the way for standardising procedures and policies on planning data through new digitalisation powers, along with a raft of other reforms to the planning system. Secondary legislation, expected within the next few months, will provide far more detail. But Part Three, Chapter 1 of the Act, Planning Data, clearly sets out the direction of travel.
Under section 84 of the Act, the Secretary of State has the power to make regulations that require a relevant planning authority to comply with applicable and approved data standards. These are standards to be published by the Secretary of State or applicable devolved authority with technical specifications or requirements for planning data and its processing.
The Act permits planning data to be available publicly. Section 86 allows planning data regulations for provision for relevant planning authorities to make planning data available to the public under an approved open licence. This is unless the relevant planning authority would breach an obligation of confidence or a restriction from publishing the data. In that case, it would not need not make data publicly available.
Standardisation will encourage more data sharing and transparency as well as consistency.
There are several specific areas of the planning system where standardisation and systems is set to make a radical difference.
National planning policy and Local Plans
The Act is introducing new National Development Management Policies (NDMPs) that will take precedence over a Local Plan where there is a conflict, or the Local Plan isn’t adopted. The Act makes provisions for more data from local authorities to inform the new National Development Management Policies.
Local Plans will become shorter and more digitally accessible (farewell lengthy pdf documents). They will be more map-based; focussing on allocations maps and policy designations. This will be good news for local planning authorities, the property industry and the public alike, making Local Plans much easier to adopt, review and understand. It should also become easier to compare Local Plan information and resolve cross-boundary matters more efficiently.
Software will automatically identify key areas of an application’s compliance with planning policy. This will mean that applications can be validated with greater speed and efficiency.
Eventually, standard processing of planning applications will likely be handled by AI.
While many local planning authorities are already using technology, different authorities are using different systems and going at different speeds. Planning applications searches online vary widely between authorities.
But this is set to change. The Act stipulates that local planning authorities use Government-recognised planning software. It provides that the Secretary of State can make regulations which restrict or prevent relevant planning authorities from using or creating a planning data software. However, a radical overhaul of differing software systems could be very costly, and it is currently unclear how this will be funded. Details on funding could possibly be announced at the same time as secondary legislation.
What does this mean for homebuying and the property industry?
Clearly, speed will not be the only benefit of the reforms. Standardisation will encourage more data sharing and transparency as well as consistency while providing the digital security and provenance we need to make data trustable and shareable between software platforms.
The reforms are likely to bring more certainty and predictability which should support a more transparent and effective market. Standardising and sharing planning data should speed up valuations and conveyancing.
At OPDA we believe the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act is very much a move in the right direction. We are optimistic that it will raise open data standards and we are keen to work with Government to shape the details in secondary legislation.