Andy Foster, business development director at consultancy Capita, was speaking today at the National Planning Summit, organised by Planning.
He said his firm was developing a robotic technology called ‘Ellie’ that would automate large parts of the planning application process and the process would begin to be used in about six months' time in the company’s trial schemes.
Capita currently runs outsourced planning services in planning departments at the Barnet, Salford, North Tyneside and Breckland councils, where the technology will be initially trialled.
Elements of the application process that would be automated included validation, registrations, consultation summarising, auto-populating reports, and notifications of neighbours and applicants.
Certificates of lawful development and dealing with questions of whether planning permission is required would also be areas for automation, Foster added.
"Some things we can put robots in for part of the process, some things we won’t touch at all because it’s so sensitive or complex, and for other things we can fully automate the process," he said.
"The more we put through it, the better and more accurate it will become."
Foster said the process was designed to support services and free up officer time for more complex tasks.
"Some people are nervous that we are using it to replace people," he said.
"Of course, that’s not the case. But in a world where planning officers are the third most difficult positions to recruit in local government, we are using Ellie to deal with simple, low-cost, high-volume transactional issues, so that planning officers can deal with the stuff they are trained to do and the more complex stuff."
The technology would be "not cheap but also not very expensive," Foster said.
"It will range from a few thousand pounds for something very simple, to around £100,000 for something more extravagant and complicated."
Foster said the target was for the project to deliver 30-40 per cent efficiencies across the process.
"Thirty to 50 per cent efficiencies wouldn’t be that surprising," he said.
Foster added that the lesson for the sector was to learn from the initial pioneers.
"We can do this once but it's not sustainable for every authority in the country to do this sort of thing. The question is: 'How do we code it up and how do we as a sector benefit from the pioneers that we have started?'"
Foster said investing in technology was one potential solution to dealing with local government finances, which he described as "fundamentally broken and unsustainable".