Government levelling up bill promotes open data-based digital planning

The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech, delivered by Prince Charles, includes proposals for digital planning powers to be given to local authorities in England and Wales, based on open data.

In the speech, which outlines the programme of legislation the government intends to pursue during the forthcoming parliamentary session, it is said that “the planning system will be reformed to give residents more involvement in local development”.

The new powers will, said the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, set “consistent data standards for the way in which planning authorities will be required to receive and process planning data”. Data will be required to be published openly, and free of charge. Planning authorities will also be required to use what is called “approved planning software that supports a modern and data-driven planning system”.

The department also states that the new planning system, as envisaged, will “enable more people, and a more diverse range of people, to engage with it and to better understand the trade-offs and benefits involved with proposed developments in their local areas”.

The original white paper that underpins the proposed bill was unveiled by levelling up secretary Michael Gove on 2 February.

It states an intention to “improve the home buying and selling process, working with the industry to ensure the critical information buyers need to know is available digitally wherever possible from trusted and authenticated sources”.

Gove’s enthusiasm for data is well known, and featured in his noted Ditchley Park speech, given in July 2020. This postulated the leveraging of data analytics as part of an agenda for a modernisation of the state.

In it, Gove said: “Government needs to evaluate data more rigorously and that means opening up data so others can judge the effectiveness of programmes as well. We need proper challenge from qualified outsiders. If Government ensures its departments and agencies share and publish data far more, then data analytics specialists can help us more rigorously evaluate policy successes and delivery failures.”

Since then, prime minister Boris Johnson has put Gove, possibly the only minister in his government with a reputation, deserved or not, as a thinker, in charge of the government’s putative levelling up agenda.

In August 2020, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), as it was then, published a proposal to reform the planning system in England, including a digital overhaul and an open data approach. That proposal stated an intention to create a planning system that “unlocks the data needed by property developers and the emerging property technology [proptech] sector, to help them make more informed decisions on what to build and where”.

“We will take a radical, digital-first approach to modernise the planning process. This means moving from a process based on documents to a process driven by data,” it said at the time.

In the meantime, the department has been running projects to improve planning data and software, under the heading “Digital Land”, including ones about conservation areas, development, brownfield land, green belt areas, gypsy and traveller sites, and woodlands.

And, in November 2021, the department launched two expressions of interest invitations for councils who want to improve their planning software.

The Scottish government published a strategy document describing its plans to digitise the country’s planning system in November 2020, entitled Transforming places together: Scotland’s digital strategy for planning, which set out its intention to establish a “framework for long-lasting change and improvement, putting data and technology at the heart of a planning system designed for the future”.