UK Government is aiming to make open, standardised data drive an improved local plans system. Legislation will ensure data is delivered in consistent formats, and make some data publicly available and reusable.
In June, I attended a Manchester conference, Digital First (previously Digitech) – the Crown Commercial Service’s annual technology showcase. My presence at the event was mainly in relation to the work of the GIIG (formerly, the Government & Industry Interoperability Group).* I was part of a panel discussion on how interoperability might help to improve the delivery of built or managed assets supporting UK public services.
The event also had some other interesting sessions. In particular, Matthew Wood-Hill (head of planning software at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, DLUHC) explained how the department is intending to modernise England’s planning system, making use of digital and data to support the co-creation of future local plans. He mentioned “approved software”, talked about the growing departmental and local authority need for data ownership, and suggested there was some “nervousness around SaaS products”. (I spoke briefly to Wood-Hill after his session about the work of the GIIG and in particular its Delivering Valuable Data: An Interoperability Code of Practice for Technologies – post – about which he was already well informed, welcoming its open standards focus. And planning is, of course, often the precursor to more detailed work to design and construct built assets and other infrastructure.)
Making best use of digital technologies in planning
We now have a clearer idea of how DLUHC might be pushing its digital approach forward. On 25 July 2023, a consultation document was published seeking views on proposals to implement parts of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill which relate to plan-making (see also this BIMplus article). To make plans simpler, faster to prepare and more accessible, it emphasises making best use of digital technology.
The consultation document also highlights a key shift away from paper-based deliverables: “plans will wherever possible make the best use of modern technology and be produced digitally, rather than as ‘analogue’ (PDF or paper) documents by default.” It also stresses standardising on open data approaches. It summarises the opportunity:
Digital transformation could mean plans are presented as interactive maps rather than static documents to show how an area could develop and change over time. Making standardised planning and environmental data openly available and accessible would make it easier to prepare planning applications and give communities the information they need to provide feedback on proposals for their area. … New digital tools and better use and availability of standardised data in the plan-making process can also be used to improve the way that plans are prepared. This should make it faster to produce a plan whilst making it easier for communities to get involved.
Chapter 3 of the consultation document (“Digital Plans“) fleshes out the proposals in more detail. The ambition is for “a digital planning system that is underpinned by standardised and open planning data”. Legislation in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will allow UK Government to prescribe a common format based on standardised data across plan-making. “Legislating for data standards and publication will help to ensure that open, standardised data can drive an improved local plans system.”
Approved data standards
The Bill has specific clauses relating to “approved data standards” (described – clause 79 – as “written standards, containing technical specifications or other requirements in relation to the data, or in relation to providing or processing the data, as may be published by the Secretary of State from time to time”). It also talks of “approved planning data software” (clause 82).
The importance of capturing information in open, standardised ways as a basis for long-term reuse is a key part of the consultation document’s digital vision. When important data can be collected in a more standardised way, it can “be processed more easily, analysed more effectively, and reused to build more sophisticated digital tools now and in the future.” This fits well with the GIIG’s insistence that interoperability is a key to ensuring other key principles: longevity of information and data ownership and control.
The DLUHC consultation is open until 18 October 2023.
* Formerly funded by the Department for Business & Trade, the GIIG is looking to continue its work as an interoperability-focused service of nima (previously the UK BIM Alliance – post). The GIIG’s outputs including the Code of Practice are currently available via the UK BIM Framework website: https://www.ukbimframework.org/GIIG/