HomeFeatures Opinion - The Inside ViewA digital Development Consent Order?

A digital Development Consent Order?

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Viral Desai, principal planner at Atkins, explains how a holistic approach to consent can speed up the programme, smooth examinations, and transform major projects.

Viral Desai, Atkins.

Getting consent is the make-or-break for major projects – and, with planning undergoing a digital transformation, taking a holistic view of consents has never been so important. Coupled with a digital approach and a more robust understanding of the DCO manager’s role, projects prove their compliance more easily, communicate their choices, and gain consent first time.

When it comes to obtaining Development Consent Orders (DCOs), the goal is the same: to secure consent the first time. However, this can be difficult for major projects. The tendency to treat consent as a separate or silo issue makes it harder for DCO managers to accurately evidence, meet the challenges posed during examinations, and ultimately to secure the DCO.

With planning undergoing its most significant changes for over half a century, there’s more pressure to improve the way in which major projects seek DCOs. Fortunately, industries are on the cusp of a digital breakthrough, which will revolutionise not only consenting, but how projects are conceived, evidenced, and approved.

Many benefits of this digital transformation depend on a holistic understanding of various aspects of a project; innovation improves the outcomes by connecting the different aspects together, earlier in a meaningful way. Since DCO managers sit at the heart of this matrix, and because they are trained to weigh up competing claims, needs, and ideas of the diverse stakeholders within it, they are specially placed to drive successful outcomes across the project.

A more robust understanding of the DCO manager’s role allows them to become the interface between different aspects of the project, which in turn generates integration, insight, and better solutions. However, to unlock these benefits, the method in which the consenting process is conceived must be reworked.

Planning gets digital

The whole planning system is going online – there will be more automation and data-driven thinking.

Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities, and Local Government, said recently: “We are moving away from notices on lampposts to an interactive and accessible map-based online system – placing planning at the fingertips of people.”

For decades, the planning system has relied upon documents; so far data has only been embraced tentatively.

Yet the proposed changes to the planning system, announced in 2020, will bring digital to the forefront. A modern approach based on real-time, open data will help to create a more accurate picture of what’s actually happening around the country. Developers, project promoters, policymakers, and citizens alike will have easy access to reliable, digestible, and relevant data about the delivery of housing and infrastructure in their local area.

As well as being more inclusive, consistent, and democratic, these changes will also make the entire process much more efficient. In turn this will accelerate programme times and – hopefully – lead to more cost-effective outcomes.

Embedding digital processes from the outset can accelerate the programme; not only is it key for smooth examinations, but it can also increase efficiency across the whole project. Without digital standardisation, the sheer volume of information across a vast array of documents can make each request a gruellingly protracted procedure.

Often, to find the right answer for a single stakeholder requires trawling through three or four dense documents. Yet, with a digital interface, it’s easy to find out why a landowner has a problem with the scheme, because their consultation responses can be seen in a single, immutable form. And, if all this is put in place from the beginning of optioneering, it can be linked to legislation, making it easier to evidence compliance with statutory regulations.

To achieve these improvements, it’s important to build best practice right from the beginning of each project. For digital to have full impact, there needs be an interface of all the areas linking into the DCO: a GIS database, for example, accommodating all the environmental, land, design, and stakeholder data, all logged and recorded reliably, would enable consent to be achieved much more smoothly.

It’s not about one single innovation, but rather a consolidation of existing tools and approaches, with a holistic mindset that focuses on the relationships between the different components of a major project.

While industries aren’t there quite yet, but with the right approach, the DCO manager can already enact much of this, just with today’s technology and a determination to implement best practice from the very start.

Holistic helps

A DCO manager isn’t just someone who knows about consenting; but someone who can deliver and make decisions holistically – and, to do this, they need the proper digital tools at their disposal. The DCO manager can knit together the various specialisms that co-exist on major projects; they can work alongside project managers, assess risks and opportunities, and, after weighing up all this, direct their team to positive outcomes.

This new way of thinking about the DCO manager conceives of them as the fulcrum, the interface enabling better connections, more harmony, and ultimately better outcomes.

The DCO manager is uniquely placed to fulfil such a function. Strong relationships with the other leads, and the cross-cutting nature of their work, enables them to be natural brokers.

More importantly, they’re crucial to the weighing up of risk; their experience empowers them to decide which risks threaten consent and therefore require changes, and which can be embraced or mitigated within the existing proposals. They are vital in helping the whole team decide how to meet the programme.

In turn, this robust interpretation of the DCO manager’s role increases the chances that the DCO will be obtained first time, reducing cost, raising standards, and de-risking the whole programme. 

Together, a digital-first approach and a more holistic, fleshed-out understanding of the DCO manager’s role can transform a project, unlock hidden potential, eliminate risks and harmonise different stakeholders. It means that stakeholders don’t have to search through 300-page documents to understand why their local park is being used as a construction site, designers can quickly understand why and how their designs need to change, and clients can have more confidence in getting consent first time.

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