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Government pushes towards digital to reignite housing market

Minister calls for more virtual viewings and greater use of online tools for planning as the UK prepares to get its housing and construction sector up and running again

The UK government plans to make more intensive use of digital tools to support the housing market as part of a plan to get the economy moving in an extended recovery period from the coronavirus outbreak.

In a speech, housing secretary Robert Jenrick outlined the government’s goals, which are part of its overall plan to “safely restart, reopen and renew the housing market”.

When the lockdown was announced in March, the government changed the rules on moving home, so that people should only do so if they thought it was “reasonably necessary”.

The emergency measures meant more than 450,000 property buyers had to put their plans on hold, said Jenrick, adding that each month, 300,000 tenancies come up for renewal. Many people have faced difficulties during the lockdown because not being able to move could have legal, financial and health implications.

To tackle these complexities, the government has allowed estate agents to resume business, but virtual viewings should be prioritised over in-person visits to properties.

Last year, HM Land Registry announced a series of digital transformation projects under the Digital Street plan, aimed at allowing property buyers to carry out several parts of the transaction process digitally, including a blockchain trial for contracts and a service allowing people to sign deeds online.

Regarding the post-lockdown plan, Jenrick said the government is keen to get the construction sector back up and running and technology will also play a role in how related processes, such as planning, are handled as the coronavirus emergency continues.

“It is time the planning system made more use of digital technology to operate remotely and efficiently during this pandemic,” he said.

“I am determined that the planning inspectorate is at the forefront of this work – I welcome the inspectorate now undertaking its first-ever virtual hearings.”

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Jenrick added that he had asked the planning inspectorate to make all hearings virtual “within weeks” for reasons beyond the pandemic.

“This is so the planning system can resume and be made permanently more accessible and user-friendly,” he said.

The government’s intentions to accelerate digital in the housing and construction sector because of the Covid-19 crisis follow other initiatives across government, notably the setting up of digital parliament.

By using phones and computers to vote remotely on a debate on the pandemic earlier this week, MPs across the country took part in what was described as a “historic first” for parliament.

The technology to enable remote voting and video at the House of Commons was developed in four weeks by the Parliamentary Digital Service after more than 100 MPs co-signed a letter written by Labour MP Chi Onwurah calling for parliament to take a lead in using digital technology for remote working during the pandemic.

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