The Annual Planning Seminar hosted by No5 Barristers’ Chambers included a presentation on the legal aspects of the emerging field of PlanTech. 300 planning experts attended the seminar, at the ICC in Birmingham, from across the private and public sectors.

A working definition of PlanTech would be: ‘the use of modern, computer-assisted digital technologies to automate, simplify and improve the process of finding, applying, accessing and managing the plan-making, development control and enforcement processes’.

James explored how as the collection and analysis of data is standardised, automated and improved, the plan-making process could itself be transformed.

PlanTech applications have the potential to radically impact on:

  • The format and content of the development plan
  • The identification of suitable sites for promotion/development
  • The consultation of local residents and stakeholders
  • The process of seeking pre-application advice
  • The submission of planning applications
  • The process of negotiation with planning officers, post-submission
  • The presentation of applications to committee, including the checking of officer reports
  • The submission of statutory appeals
  • The presentation of evidence/arguments at statutory appeal
  • Planning Court litigation

James further predicted that planning inquiries will become increasingly visually-oriented, with the physical display of impacts from development, both positive and negative. This would include both site-specific visualisation: e.g. augmented reality, flyovers and geo-location and also district-wide visualisation, e.g.  visual chronologies and mapping of development trajectories for housing land supply.

He observed: “This may not persuade the hardened objector, but it will certainly add to the transparency with which arguments are presented and assist an inclusive deliberation process.”

The legislative framework for the use of PlanTech technologies is presently very limited, ensuring that the courts may be called upon first to set out applicable principles: with respect to accuracy, transparency and the duty of the decision-taker to interrogate the evidence and provide adequate reasons.

A significant area of risk will be the use of automation (Narrow Artificial Intelligence) tools in assessing data. There is no scope for final decision making by AI under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and their respective secondary legislation. Many interim validation/consultation/assessment decisions and all final decisions must be made by a human decision-maker. However, there is scope for the augmentation of human capacity through the innovation of AI tools to assist these processes, all the way up to the writing of reports.

James added: “In the short to mid-term, there are likely to be both challenges and opportunities from the use of this technology and one can predict that development control may see an initial wave of judicial review applications within the next five to 10 years challenging any decision based on the automated use of data.

“Equally, one can expect new types of judicial review challenges in respect of the assembly and analysis of data under big data and performance monitoring, for example through miscalculation of housing land supply figures during the generation of Annual Position Statements. 

“Such litigation will be fast-paced, complex and call for adaptation of existing litigation tactics,” he predicted.

He concluded: “The system will change as much in the next ten years, as in the last 30 (since the Town and Country Planning Act 1990). PlanTech will change our collective working practices irreversibly, but there is abundant opportunity to shape its development along the way.”