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Tomorrow's robot builders shall rise from the embers of today's planning system

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

The English planning system is “broken”, if one is to believe the findings of two major reports released within 48 hours of each other earlier this month.

Nick Raynsford, a former planning minister, and Dame Judith Hackitt, former chair of the Health and Safety Executive, both labelled the system not fit for use following in-depth reviews of planning and building regulations and fire safety, respectively.

So what does that mean for the government’s ambition of building an extra 300,000 homes a year by the middle of the next decade?

Nick Walkley, chief executive of Homes England has argued that the main limitation on that number is human. Speaking at a Local Government Association housing conference in March, Mr Walkley talked of how the 2008 financial downturn had removed large numbers of small and medium-sized builders from the construction industry, with many simply unable to return due to “tightened lending conditions”. Of those builders who did remain or return, up to 40% are reportedly looking to retire in the near future.

And what of the planning experts? Finn Williams, co-founder of Public Practice, helps to place experts in planning departments. He also believes the biggest barrier stopping councils from building at capacity today is a lack of skills. A 2017 survey of London boroughs found all were having difficulties recruiting people with the right skills, said Mr Williams.

Alongside a skills shortage comes a crisis over the quantity and quality of homes being built. While the number of properties that failed to meet the Decent Homes Standard decreased from 35% to 20% between 2006 and 2016, that still leaves 4.7 million properties in sub-standard conditions.

The political consequences of poor living conditions, and of a lack of opportunity for younger generations to get on the housing ladder, are clear - namely unrest, protest and riots. As the Conservative leader of one district council told LGC: “How can we expect the next generation to believe in capitalism if they don’t possess any capital?”

No wonder Theresa May has made it her “mission” to tackle the housing crisis.

To massively increase house-building at a time when most builders are leaving the job market, developers are increasingly embracing new technologies to build homes and structures. According to one construction leader, one answer lies in off-site, machine construction, which could increase productivity by 50% - as a base-mark.

Innovation in planning departments is also currently less than common, but many experts have started calling for change.

Mary Parsons, chair of the Town & Country Planning Association, told a design conference last month: “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.

Euan Mills of Future Cities Catapult said “planners don’t go to school to validate planning applications”, before urging more councils to hire data scientists.

Freeing up planners by automating parts of planning bureaucracy allows them to develop more creative solutions to the country’s many problems. Those solutions would bring more benefits than are immediately apparent - public health benefits and reductions in pressures on health and social care services among the most eagerly predicted.

The robots are rising, and the sector should embrace them.

By Robert Cusack, reporter

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