20 December 2017

Finding land for development

The world of data analytics, big data and machine learning seems to have passed by much of the planning system. Yet, of all public city services, it is the planning system that spends the most money on generating and retrieving data.

This data, required to provide the evidential grounding for planning applications, masterplans and city plans, is held across a number of overlapping document management systems which have little or no interoperability and are inaccessible for machine or human.

This lack of accessibility has consequences. The most obvious being the significant cost of repeated retrieval, generation and analysis of the same data. This data is extracted either by local authority officers, or developers or consultants employed by them, who are paid the same price for what is often a cut and paste of a previous piece of analysis.

Having open and accessible planning data available should allow others - be they different services in local authorities, or those in the market wishing to develop new data-driven products and services - to reuse the same data without the costs of having to generate or retrieve it again.

Now, consider this idea in the context of the government’s Housing White Paper which to little dissent, suggested that ‘the housing market is broken’. It is clear that the asymmetry of information and analytical capability between major developers and their consultants, public planners, smaller developers and citizens, is one of the underlying causes of the ill-functioning housing and land market. And it is this that leads to the unfair accusation by non-technical users of the planning system, that the system is being played by developers.

At Future Cities Catapult we’ve been looking at ways to level the playing field through the better provision and re-use of data. We’ve worked with DCLG, our Future of Planning Sounding Board and various users of the planning system throughout England to identify priorities for digitally driven innovation in plan making. The result of this work was the design of a user experience/conceptual prototype for a Land Information Platform that we demonstrated for the first time at MIPIM UK.

The platform would contain a number of core functions allowing local planning authorities to identify, prioritise and allocate sites for new development; improving how they allocate land for new development and the speed at which this is done. It would use a variety of data-sets from Ordnance Survey and Land Registry as well as historic planning data and open government information such as energy performance certificates, to automatically screen and identify potential development opportunities.

Not only would the tool identify potential land, it would also, with reference to policy, context and some key urban design rules of thumb, be able to estimate how many homes could be accommodated on a site much more precisely than the current methods that we use.

A series of open APIs within the platform would allow the market to build digital simulation tools to plug into a local authority’s shortlist of allocated sites – in essence, acting as an App Store for planning. One example simulation illustrated in the user experience prototype was inspired by one of our Future of Planning Open Call winning tools called SidM, supported by the London Borough of Hackney. SidM uses development data from planning applications, the current SHLAA and changes to existing populations to model the impact of housing and population growth on the capacity of primary schools and GPs over time.

With the government’s manifesto, commitment to create ‘the largest repository of open land data in the world” the Land Information Platform, likened to a Bloomberg Terminal for land, planning and housing, is a good example of what government can do to help foster ‘innovative tools to help people and developers build’. We also believe that the platform could spurn new digital planning products and services that build better understanding and knowledge of the planning system. Imagine an app on your phone that allowed you to ‘see’ what a planning application looks like, to tweak its design and assess the impact on planning contributions.

The use of platforms to efficiently provide the same information to many users is not a new concept. It has significantly reduced costs and lowered the barriers to entry in financial services, and we think it will do the same in the land, planning and housing market.

Stefan Webb is head of projects at Future Cities Catapult

This feature first appeared in Public Property magazine. Email l.sharman@hgluk.com to sign up to your free copy.

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