Dr Wei Yang, Co-Chair, The Digital Task Force for Planning – Written Evidence (LUE0041)
About the Digital Task Force for Planning
Para 1. The Digital Task Force for Planning is an independent panel co-chaired by Michael Batty and Wei Yang. The Task Force was set up in in February 2021 and is comprised of an interdisciplinary panel of 10 influential thought leaders drawn from a broad spectrum relating to planning and digital technology. The mission of the Task Force is to promote an integrated digitally enabled approach to Spatial Planning. It is a prelude to a wider ongoing debate about how planning needs to fit into the wider framework of development of our towns, cities and rural areas to tackle the grand challenges of our times, and at the same time create beautiful, sustainable, resilient and inclusive communities for us and for our future generations.
Para 2. This response has been generated by Dr Wei Yang, Co-chair of the Digital Task Force for Planning to reflect the relevant key findings and recommendations from the Task Force report, A Digital Future for Planning – Spatial Planning Reimagined (Batty & Yang, 2022).
Para 3. The Task Force report was based on evidence collected through a year-long comprehensive cross-sector consultation programme, involving local and national government departments, agencies dealing with the natural and built environment, digital technology, public health, and higher education. Different from previous reviews of the planning system which were focused on the legislative and policy aspects of planning, this review took an entirely open approach that links many grand challenges together. The study is beyond professional, political, and departmental boundaries. A big question was asked: “What should be done now to make our world a better place for our future generations through achieving a universal common good”.
Para 4. The Task Force report provides a blueprint for a digitally enabled spatial planning, which we believe is powerful leverage to deliver zero-carbon, environmental net gain, levelling up, and other ambitious economic and social goals committed by the government.
Response to Questions
Pressures and challenges
Question 1. What do you see as the most notable current challenges in relation to land use in England?
Para 5. The biggest challenge in relation to land use in England is the absence of long-term and strategic planning and joined-up actions. The remit and ability of spatial planning is significantly under-valued by the misinterpretation of ‘Planning’ equals to ‘Planning Control’.
Para 6. A systems map (Figure 1) reproduced from the exercise conducted by the Royal Academy of Engineering illustrates the current system for Housing, Planning and Infrastructure, which is characterised by conflicting interests and lacking a shared vision.
Figure 1: The Current Systems Map for Hosing, Planning and Infrastructure in the UK – Characterised by Conflicting Interests and Lacking a Shared Vision (Data adopted from: Royal Academy of Engineering, Sustainable Living Places– a Systems Perspective on Planning, Housing and Infrastructure)
How might these challenges best be tackled? How do you foresee land use in England changing over the long term? How should competing priorities for land use be managed?
Para 7. To tackle these challenges and manage the competing priorities, there is a great urgency to clarify the legitimacy of spatial planning and fully recognise the scope of its professional capacity. A broader civil and political consensus around the significance of spatial planning is needed.
Para 8. Our future prosperity, our health and well-being aspirations are dependent on whether we can take urgent joined up actions to tackle the grand challenges. we need a joint vision to work towards a Universal Common Good – net zero carbon emissions, natural capital net gain, a circular economy, social inclusion, and the goals set out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Para 9. Spatial planning is a key mechanism to deliver zero-carbon, environmental net gain, to spur on the development of a circular economy, and to achieve a green industrial revolution for a fairer society. At the same time, spatial planning has powerful leverage to engage communities to create beautiful and liveable places. It achieves these aims by defining the use of land, protecting the environment, engaging in design, and stimulating social and economic activities.
Para 10. Spatial planning is organised around applied social, environmental, and behavioural disciplines that synthesise different approaches to both the sciences and the arts. The full remit of its domain includes the wider landscape of cities and the countryside as well as marine areas. Utilising a place-based whole systems approach, spatial planning has the ability to develop a long-term vision and framework for citizens, based on multiple scales, balancing competing demands, and directing resource-allocation decisions.
Para 11. To manage the competing priorities for land use, a whole system change of spatial planning methodology enabled by digital technologies and big data is needed. Digital methods and data advancement can transform our previous linear thinking in land use planning into a multidisciplinary and multifunctionality intelligence. It will have the power to break departmental and professional silos and can provide a strong foundation capable of supporting the delivery of key missions outlined in the Levelling Up White Paper (DLUHC, 2022).
Question 2. What are the key drivers of land use change which need to be planned for, and how should they be planned for? What is the role of multifunctional land use strategies in implementing these plans?
Para 12. Climate adaptation, mitigation & resilience, green infrastructure (nature-based solutions and natural capital net gain), social infrastructure, demographic change adaptation, new mobility methods, physical infrastructure (transport, energy, water, waste, ICT & Smart infrastructure etc.), farming, soil and mineral resources, consumer trends etc are the key drivers of land use change which need to be planned for.
Para 13. How our living environment is planned has a direct influence on people’s daily activities, their health and well-being. People’s choices for low carbon and healthier lifestyles are limited by the built environment. How we plan, build, and retrofit our living environment through land use planning is one of the biggest questions for which our society needs new answers. Our surrounding countryside provides vital food production, as well as multifunctional green infrastructure for flood attenuation, recreate, and biodiversity. A holistic multifunctional land use strategy, in our term ‘a place-based whole systems strategy’ is pivotal to ensure multiple goals can be achieved in an effective way.
Question 3. How might we achieve greater and more effective coordination, integration and delivery of land use policy and management at a central, regional, local and landscape level?
Para 14. A new digitally enabled systems approach to spatial planning is one of the keys to unlocking the move to achieve multiple goals. We propose a transformative digitalisation of spatial planning – a people-centric process which is enabled by digital technologies. Through this approach different social, environmental, and economic dimensions of built and natural environment can be considered in a systematic way.
Para 15. In essence, we propose a cyclic planning system based on two interrelated loops (Figure 2) – an Evidence Analytics Loop empowered by data and digital technology and a Decision-Making Loop based on a democratic and transparent process which is the legislative procedure. The two loops are integrative and interactive with each other, and they can be interlocked in countless ways when adapted to the planning task in hand.
Figure 2: The Methodology of a Digitally Enabled Whole Systems Approach to Spatial Planning
Para 16. To enable this approach, there is an urgent need to establish a complementary set of core digital capacities in data, platforms, tools and techniques, as well as develop adequate skill capacity within the planning profession through training and education. The Core Digital Capacities required are listed as below:
Para 17. A Common Spatial Data Environment based on National Mapping and Datasets: the map and datasets including key environmental, socio-economic & public health data need to be specified and coordinated centrally for the country. This would enable a consistent baseline study for forecasting, simulation, modelling, and monitoring.
Para 18. A National Network of ‘Regional Data Observatories’ based on Regional Data Input: regional bodies tasked with collecting and analysing demographic, economic, social and environmental data should be created.
Para 19. An Integrated Planning Open Data Framework based on Planning Data Input: digital planning support systems need to be designed to capture back-office data in an integrated open data framework with decision support and public consultation functions.
Para 20. Planning Metadata and Information Management Standards: unifying planning metadata and information management standards to enable the twin pillars of development control and plan-making to be coordinated and synergised.
Nature, landscape and biodiversity
Question 6. What do you see as the key threats to nature and biodiversity in England in the short and longer term, and what role should land use policy have in tackling these?
Para 21. The key threats to nature and biodiversity in England are the fragmented protection policies and the focus on isolated locations. Short term localised biodiversity targets might be able to be achieved, but the strategic longer-term opportunities could be missed.
Para 22. Scientists from the Intergovernmental Science- Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and on Climate Change (IPCC)are calling on countries to protect entire ecosystems rather than iconic locations or species. Strategic land use policy supported by evidence can support the longer-term protection and enhancement to nature and biodiversity.
Environment, climate change, energy and infrastructure
Question 8. How will commitments such as the 25-year environment plan and the net zero target require changes to land use in England, and what other impacts might these changes have?
Para 23. The land use in England should have the same timeframe consideration as 25-year environment plan and the net zero target, i.e. 25 years and long-term plan to 2050.
Land use planning
Question 10. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of the existing land use planning system and associated frameworks in England? How effectively does the system manage competing demands on land, including the Government’s housing and development objectives? What would be the merits of introducing a formal spatial planning framework or frameworks, and how might it be implemented?
Para 24. The major disadvantage of the existing land use planning system and associated frameworks is its departmental limitation. Different national and local government departments and their agencies’ mapping systems, data, policies and actions are not coordinated. Given the current limits on the land use planning in the narrative of housing delivery, many strategic challenges remain with little oversight.
Para 25. A digitally enabled formal spatial planning framework can play a vital role to support the complete ‘system change’ with respect to how government works as outlined in the Levelling Up White Paper (DLUHC, 2022). This will generate an invigorated community approach, more interesting, visual and accessible planning, much speeded-up planning processes, saving costs, increasing efficiency and productivity, as well as a unified approach to information management.
Para 26. In addition to enabling cross-departmental spatial analysis of progress in policy implementation and impact evaluation, a digitally enabled formal spatial planning framework can support the transformation of the government’s approach to data and evaluation alongside improving the transparency of local government performance as articulated in the Levelling Up White Paper.
Para 27. Further to the Core Digital Capacities outlined in Question 3, to implement the framework, it is essential to create a Comprehensive Mapping System, a Common Spatial Data Environment, and a Basic Set of Analytic Functions Tailored to Plan-Making.
Para 28. To introduce a formal spatial planning framework, the priority is to develop a comprehensive dataset across environmental, social and economic spectra for the whole UK. This requires a common mapping system and a national planning data environment with agreed standards applicable to all four countries in the UK so that it is able address the challenges of climate change and biodiversity. The organisations are in place to do this and much of the data is there, but joined-up thinking is required as well as the standards and infrastructure to deliver this to planning authorities and developers.
Para 29. The common spatial data environment functions as a planning data library, in which the information needs to be in a form that is accessible and understandable to planners, decision makers and the public. As a national agency, Ordnance Survey (OS) has the benefits of scale. It can be done across the country to ensure consistency and reduce cost. OS could potentially provide services that ensure all data is accessible, deal with licensing problems, and back-office work support to help integrate data based on spatial planning needs. So planners do not need to worry about data problems, and can focus on generating new insights.
Para 30. A directory of data available is required to list what data is discoverable, as well as mechanisms for enabling future data to be added in the future. Several tasks need to be pursued:
Task 1: Identifying Baseline Data
Task 2: Defining Consistent Spatial Data Standards for Planning
Task 3: Reviewing Data Licensing, Security, and Confidentiality Requirements
Task 4: Establishing Common Datasets and Improved Monitoring
Task 5: Developing Analytical Tools and Models for Enabling Better Local and Strategic Planning
Para 31. Further details can be found in Recommendation 5 of Appendix 3 – Full Recommendations of the Digital Task Force Report.
Question 12. Which organisations would be best placed to plan and decide on the allocation of land for the various competing agendas for land use in England, and how should they set about doing so?
Para 32. Recognising the vital role of Spatial Planning and the potentials of Its digital transformation to tackle the grand challenges through land use planning, we recommend establishing a Chief Spatial Planning Officer Role in the Cabinet Office (Recommendation 2 in our report) and a Central Resource and Delivery Body (Recommendation 4 in our report) to empower cross-sector innovation, and to develop and implement a digitally enabled systems approach to spatial planning via implementing multifunctional land use strategies.
Para 33. Chief Spatial Planning Officer Role in the Cabinet Office - Many of the central government’s key policies are directly connected to spatial planning issues. A stronger presence in spatial planning at the top levels of policy advice can be achieved by introducing this role. We recommend a Chief Spatial Planning Officer sits alongside the Chief Scientific Adviser & Chief Medical Officer in the Cabinet Office to advise government on the integrated spatial implications of climate mitigation and adaptation, local and regional economic growth, levelling-up, housing, infrastructure, land use, transport, and built and natural environment actions and policies.
Para 34. A Central Resource and Delivery Body - As part of the joined up environmental and levelling up agenda, a central resource and delivery body should be established to lead the implementation of digital planning methodology, coordinate the development of planning metadata and information management standards, share best-practice, facilitate exchange and collaboration, and identify training and research needs. It should be organised as a new form of academic/government/ practice partnership that allows the business case for a rapid transition to a more digitally enabled system.
Para 35. The body will provide leadership in integrating innovative visualisation, public participation, data analytics, artificial intelligence, and digital twinning in planning, and the challenges and opportunities they afford government, planning authorities, and planning professionals operating on all levels.
Para 36. The body will be responsible for setting up a national network of regional data observatories linked to relevant organisations and local authorities. It will engage the public through the national network which will facilitate better understanding of planning in resolving comprehensive challenges. Some of this organisational infrastructure already exists and provides a sound basis on which to build.
Dr Wei Yang
The Digital Task Force for Planning
 Batty & Yang, A Digital Future for Planning Spatial Planning Reimagined (2022).
 Royal Academy of Engineering, Sustainable Living Places– a Systems Perspective on Planning, Housing and Infrastructure, https://www.raeng.org.uk/publications/reports/sustainable-living-places-(1)
 IPBES & IPCC (2021), https://ipbes.net/events/ launch-ipbes-ipcc-co-sponsored-workshop-report-biodiversity-and-climate-change