Why a council has added drones to its planning toolkit

A council in East Sussex revealed that it uses drones to help monitor enforcement breaches. Commentators say they expect local authorities' use of drones in planning to increase but highlight several potential risks.

Unmanned aerial vehicles: drones can be used to assess planning applications and enforcement breaches (pic: Getty Images)
Unmanned aerial vehicles: drones can be used to assess planning applications and enforcement breaches (pic: Getty Images)

Robots may not be taking over from planners any time soon – but they are already finding jobs as assistants. Wealden District Council in East Sussex recently revealed that it uses drones to assess planning applications and enforcement breaches. North West Leicestershire District Council is among the other authorities using drones to identify planning permission breaches. So should all planning teams be taking to the skies?

According to Wealden Council’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) Policy, drones are used in development management for "larger-scale site inspections" and to "aid officers and elected members when making decisions". For enforcement purposes, drones "provide a clear record of both the operational development and use of a site". According to the policy, drones can "greatly reduce the risk to staff when dealing with confrontational individuals" and are also seen as a way to investigate potentially vexatious complaints while "removing any unnecessary stress caused by multiple enforcement visits".

A Wealden Council spokeswoman outlines some of the steps the local authority takes to remain within the law. In enforcement cases, "permission to fly the drone is sought from the adjoining landowner," she said. Similarly, when using drones for development management, "we only ever use drones to scope out a site with full permission of the landowner submitting the application," she added.

Dr Paul Feild, a senior governance solicitor at the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham who has written guidance notes on the use of drones by councils, said there are various regulatory requirements of which local authorities should be aware. As of November 2019, drone operators must be registered with the Civil Aviation Authority. In addition, use of drones for enforcement purposes will likely involve surveillance and require councils to consider laws such as the Data Protection Act and the European Convention on Human Rights. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act also means local authorities need legal approval before conducting surveillance. Despite these regulatory hurdles, Feild believes an increasing number of councils will soon be using drones. "I think they can add an awful lot of value," he said. "There’s going to be more and more of these things in the sky once the business case is understood."

Rufus Ballaster, partner at law firm Carter Lemon Camerons and the author of A Practical Guide to Drone Law, said information gathered using UAVs should be used sensibly. "I don’t believe all planning breaches need to be enforced," he said. "But if a drone picks up a serious enough planning breach that it should be enforced, getting that information from the sky is an awful lot easier than trying to get a human out there." Ballaster said there are various issues to consider first. "Things that are worrying me are data protection, insurance, pilot training and knowledge of when these things can and should fly," he said, suggesting local authorities may find it easier to outsource this work.

Euan Mills, urban futures team lead at the government- backed Future Cities Catapult, sees plenty of potential for councils to use drones. "The reality is, in planning today, we spend so much time and resources doing very repetitive and resource- intensive tasks," he said. Instead, drones might allow planners to focus their efforts on work best carried out by humans, he added. "Given the context of falling budgets we can relocate a lot of resources to much more high-value tasks."

According to Mills, planning data collected by drones can offer value not just to enforcement officers but to their strategic planning colleagues and other local authority departments such as conservation, education and ecology. However, he added that councils should ensure that they retain ownership of any data collected. "I’d much rather a democratically legitimate organisation collects and owns that data than the private sector," he said.

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