If you were excited by the digital world created in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, then looking up a planning application on a local authority website is likely to bring you back down to earth with even more of a bump than Sandra Bullock’s landing. What are the prospects for better and more sophisticated digitisation of the planning system?
It’s not hard to imagine amazing possibilities for spatial planning in a digitised world, given the continuing exponential growth of computing power and capacity. The kind of imagery we are used to seeing on Time Team, with successive phases of building on a site presented digitally in ‘fast forward’ fly-throughs, could readily be applied to project proposals, and brought up, as standard, for consultees to review on a local authority website – rather than some badly drawn plans scanned at poor resolution, as we might be able to find today if we are lucky. A dynamic digital imaging app could allow you to hold up your iPad in front of you on site and view a new scheme overlaid on reality, as it would appear from that viewpoint.
But today, it feels as if we are still in the Stone Age. The applications suggested above wouldn’t need any technology we don’t have already (and probably exist already in some form) - but they are not very likely to become standard practice soon. The reality is that digitisation of the planning system is in its infancy – and for the most part it is in the hands of local authorities, who are generally not at the bleeding edge of technology.
But even if the physical reality of buildings proposals could be presented in more and more sophisticated ways through computer modelling, will this bring about better planning? The many problems of the UK planning system are not mainly to do with lack of access to data.
Digital exclusion, too, should be a major concern in a system that is supposed to be democratically accountable. Your 80 year old mother might want to say something about the Wetherspoon planned to open on her doorstep (mine did), but the average council website will not make it easy for her.
In an optimistic version of the digital future, planning authorities will be able much more readily to receive data as well as disseminate it. Do we still want a few councillors deciding what will happen – why not ‘open source’ decision making? Compared with a digital city model, the digital system that would allow citizens to vote on planning applications and strategies would be pretty straightforward. But there is little appetite anywhere for rule by plebiscite rather then by representative government – which might lead you to wonder what the point would be in providing citizens with increasingly sophisticated data concerning things they are not being asked to decide on in any case.