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Planning and design: 'collaborate or die'

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LGC’s essential daily briefing on planning innovation.

Imagine for a second you’ve been invited to preview a new urban plan. Putting on a virtual reality headset, you are immediately supplanted into an alternative universe which looks and experiences exactly like the ‘real world’.

Looking at the new buildings awaiting permission, the system reads your feelings in real time through facial recognition and adapts the designs to suit. You can ask the planning officer to proceed or halt immediately; the planning application has already been automatically validated by a computer in milliseconds, not months.

None of the above is sci-fi; instead it could be coming to a planning department near you in the future. All of this technology is available now and is currently being used in the private sector as normal practice.

As a primer, the 2015 book ‘The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts’ gives an eye-opening insight into how far into the future we have already come.

Walking around the average town hall, however, one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

Speaking at the Design Quality Conference at the Institute of Engineering and Technology in London yesterday, Mark Farmer of Cast Consultancy gave fair warning: “It’s a whole new world out there now.”

Mr Farmer is the man behind the Farmer Review, subtitled “modernise or die”. It shows in excoriating detail how and why the construction and planning industries must be brought into the 21st century. Chief executive of Homes England Nick Walkley recommended the Farmer Review to a room of planners in March, adding: “we’re still building homes like we did 100 years ago.”

For innovation is coming, and quicker than previously thought.

Buildings are currently being designed through artificial intelligence, making thousands of improvements to each plan through slight variances to environmental factors. In China, robots are already designing and constructing schools.

This need not be expensive either. Yet in Britain, the world of local government planning is bereft with inefficiencies left over from Britain’s love for bureaucracy. Chiefs and officers in understaffed departments struggle on, despite a gross lack of funding and investment in skills. Morale often runs low due to an overly combative and anachronistic system that merely creaks on through necessity.

“The Town and Country Planning Act was introduced at the same time as the National Health Service and housing acts. We all know the laws are creaking and they need an overhaul, but nothing has been done,” said Mary Parsons, chair of the Town & Country Planning Association.

Tony Pidgley, chair of the Berkeley Group, roused murmurs of agreement from a room of developers in calling for more planning officers and less bureaucracy.

Mr Pidgley said: “No-one reads all those planning documents, especially the planners, so what are we doing them for? Planning has never changed, but it has to work. When [developers and planners] trust each other we can work together to make places.”

One solution would be to free up town planners through automation. As Euan Mills of Future Cities Catapult pointed out: “Planning departments handle tons of data, yet I don’t know any planning departments that hire data scientists. Planners don’t go to school to validate planning applications.”

Freeing up planners to make more creative and interesting solutions could possibly create additional benefits for the wider population. Public health professionals argue that well-designed places create positive impacts on every part of a resident’s life, yet the magical cross-department approach to planning design has yet to be realised.

“It’s really easy to build mediocre [homes] and very hard to build great ones,” said Phil Mason, chief planning officer at Cornwall Council. “Mediocrity conforms to templates. Developers put it in because they know that that plan will get adopted.”

No-one naturally wants to live or work in a place of mediocrity. The British engineers and designers behind the SS Great Britain and the Clifton Suspension Bridge did not start from the basis of not rocking the boat.

Yet in today’s rapidly ageing Britain, that inspiration and greatness is possibly missing because of a lack of top-down direction. Ms Parsons of the TCPA addressed the elephant in the room head on when she said: “Planning departments don’t innovate because they’re run by old people.”

With the “housing crisis” on ministers’ radar, the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government’s chief planner Steven Quartermain made clear the ”government is serious” about delivering good-quality homes. In removing the local from the local plans process from three districts earlier this year the government’s message was clearer still: build new homes or we will do it for you.

As Louise Wyman of Homes England said: “Paraphrasing the Farmer Review, it’s not just ‘modernise or die’ - it’s also collaborate or die.”

By Robert Cusack, reporter

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