Unravelling the planning software and innovation conundrum

With local authorities on the frontline, exploring how technology can be harnessed to improve services is vital. Town planning is an area that’s coming under increasing interest, as many of the existing processes are still largely paper-based with little automation, difficult to use and often need to be supplemented with workarounds. 

A recent report from the Connected Place Catapult (CPC) levelled criticism at the current offering of planning software on the market – suggesting that there are too few providers, and that innovation is limited. Taking best practice from other industries, CPC suggested six advisory principles that suppliers should adhere to when scoping out, funding, procuring and delivering new solutions. They include: 

  1. A focus on data-based planning
  2. The adoption of common data schemas 
  3. Open and standardised APIs 
  4. Using modular systems instead of large, monolithic systems 
  5. Encoding privacy, security and fairness into planning software 
  6. Planning software that’s easy to use 

I don’t disagree with the six principles outlined in the report. However, by focusing wholly on the software suppliers, the report misses an opportunity to highlight some more fundamental issues. At the top of the list sits procurement, closely followed by change management, HR and IT, amongst other common issues. 

It would be very interesting to take a local authority procurement exercise for planning software and see how much focus it puts on the six principles outlined in the report. If you pick out one principle - ‘modularity’ – for example: I have worked on hundreds of procurements of planning software, and not one has been for a system for managing planning applications alone. 

One of the biggest challenges that local authorities face is the wide range of services they have to offer to their citizens. This means that more often than not, procurement exercises not only include the broader elements of a local authority planning service, but also services such as building control, land charges, environmental health and so on. Any supplier selling software that only deals with planning applications would find it hard to sell to the current market. 

So, should software suppliers take a stand on the principles, and go out of business? Or do they give the market what it is asking for? It’s certainly a hard balance to strike. 

Some suppliers have long since championed moving away from legacy tech and legacy ways of working. I would say that overwhelmingly there’s a desire to get it right and strive to meet the evolving needs of planners and the public sector at large. Realistically, we have to acknowledge that we are working within a market where the kind of innovation that we would love to take forward and is being recommended by CPC, isn’t always what is being asked for or wanted. 

Richard Sankey is product director at Arcus Global 

 

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