town planning
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Robin Barber, Product Owner of Built Environment at Arcus Global, explores how artificial intelligence (AI) can play a role in town planning

Planners don’t choose this vocation for a large amount of mundane heavy-duty administration and data entry. However, that can still be the case in many local authorities, leaving project work, and more interesting or complex cases further down the pile. Keeping that in mind, automation can lift the heavyweight of admin off a planner’s shoulders. It is freeing in time, freeing in costs, and freeing in a planner’s intellectual capacity. But what is the real-world impact of implementing AI, chatbots, and general automation? Is it a net positive? For example, does the impact on staff become a positive outcome for citizens?

How AI can fit into council processes

Once integrated, AI can step in to help with simple planning applications and frees up time-limited planners to focus on the complex applications where specific skills are needed. It reduces stress and that ‘up against it’ feeling, but it also offers a much higher level of job satisfaction and a feeling of personal development. When a planner is freed from the chains of admin and takes up more stimulating work, more learning opportunities are created – which in turn can have some really positive impacts for the local community. Added to this, the council as a whole will see its skill sets and progression speed up dramatically. With a strong drive from the government to ‘level up’ the country this year, this is hugely important.

Automation is, in my opinion, essential for both the council itself and local citizens. It streamlines the customer journey right through from initial queries, to applications, consultations, responses and final agreements. It can operate as an intelligent system, programmed with context-sensitive processes that guide people through the most commonly asked queries.

We can all see the potential gains from automating the planning process, for its ability to keep all tasks on track and the low level of maintenance needed. Through intelligent learning, AI helps deliver insight by gathering data over time, giving us answers, guidance and reducing the need for planning officers to deal with the mundane. If all of the information they need is to hand and made available through AI, the entire process runs more smoothly.

Is automation being held back? 

A 2019 report from the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee says that automation has the potential to drive the UK forward as a leader of tech innovation. But it also stated that ‘the problem for the UK labour market and our economy is not that we have too many robots in the workplace, but that we have too few’. It went on to outline the obstacles that organisations can face when looking to work automation into their day-to-day operations.

Besides the well-trodden argument that ‘robots will take away jobs’ – a lack of understanding from business leaders on the benefits of automation was highlighted as a major hurdle. Not only that, but the digital skills gap and difficulty in working automation into existing work practices were discussed.

A lot of us understand these reservations completely, which is why the public sector must be proactive and look at the real business benefits of automation. Taking practical steps to tackle the problems that become barriers to adoption and progress. This way, it can catch up with the private sector, which is leaps and bounds ahead in some areas.

The public sector needs to make it a priority to adapt to the changing landscape of technology, to make life better for citizens. Town planning can often be a lengthy and demanding process – the obstacles that staff and citizen’s face are the same, and the solution is staring the public sector in the face.

The citizen at the heart of the technology

From a citizen’s perspective, automating the planning process just fits with the automated online world that they are used to, dynamically interacting with an organisation the same way they do with their bank, utility provider or retailer. You can order items on Amazon at the click of a button (which has been a staple part of peoples’ lives for years now) and most issues can be resolved without long and aggravating phone calls. Even Tweeting a company or council is starting to become ‘normal’ – it’s simply a matter of time before more and more councils are operating in this way, and it will come as no surprise to the citizens involved.

In planning, citizens now expect online models like the above to be available at every stage of the process – from application right through to assessments and paying for applications. ‘Empowering’ people by giving them a variety of ways to communicate should be part of the natural progression in the public sector, and planning is no exception.

Citizen expectations are evolving all the time and the onus is on councils to show transparency and provide convenience – more than ever in these unprecedented times where systems and people are being tested like never before. Having a transparent, open platform that citizens can easily navigate and get the answers they need is vital. The positive impact on their lives shouldn’t be overlooked, and it’s up to councils to implement the technology – and the cultural shift – needed to make this happen.


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