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Blog - Land Information Platform: levelling the playing field

To mark the launch of the new Land Information Platform in partnership with the Department of Communities and Local Government, Head of Projects Stefan Webb outlines why it revolutionise the way that developers can create housing proposals that engage with the citizens of an area and fit the needs of the wider community.

The Government’s most recent Housing White Paper boldly suggested that the housing market was broken. Unsurprisingly this generated very little dissent. Our contention is that there is an asymmetry of information and analytical capability between the major developers and their consultants and public planners, smaller developers and citizens. This is one of the causes of the ill-functioning housing and land market which leads to (unfair) accusations by citizens of the planning system being played by developers. We’ve been looking at ways to level the playing field.

Currently the way in which sites are allocated for future development is through a haphazard combination of local knowledge and a volunteer ‘call for sites’. Local planning authorities ask anyone (but in effect landowners, land agents and larger developers) to come forward with sites for where new development can and should be accommodated over the next 5, 10, and even 15 years. Whilst valuable in its own way, this process only surfaces land which owners and developers are actively trying to build on. Anything else such as publicly owned land, land whose owners are absent, or land that developers have options on but want to keep their value low, is often missed.

Many local planning authorities tend to exclude smaller sites as the more sites you have, the more work will be required to survey and manage the information, and instead create broad brush figures which they group as ‘windfall’. This deterrent against identifying a range of sites means there is less information available for smaller developers to understand where their next opportunity may come from, leaving them at the mercy of local land agents.

At both the plan-making stage and during the planning application submission process, we often hear the cry that new development, and the new residents that come with, will be putting more strain on the existing and often ‘at-capacity’ local infrastructure. Despite developers financially contributing to new physical and social infrastructure, and public servants diligently working out when and where they will need to build the next primary school or GP surgery, no one effectively communicates the full picture of how new development will affect local infrastructure. This information is often the needle in the haystack of planning documents and only the well trained or well informed can locate it or even interpret it.

These challenges have been voiced by planners, developers, politicians and citizen groups for years, but we have now begun to explore them more systematically and through the lens of digital transformation. Through our Future of Planning programme, we have been researching the challenges and enabling experimentation to overcome them; this includes user research with planners, citizen activists, developers and consultants in Greater Manchester, Plymouth and London, and an open call for ideas that attracted 87 applicants.

Critically the Government now understands that digital transformation is part of the solution. The Housing White Paper devoted a section to “Digital planning: making plans and proposals more accessible” which stated that “we are working with local authorities, users of plans and other innovators through a pilot programme to identify opportunities to…use digital tools to support better plan-making, improve the accessibility of information and help people identify and develop appropriate land for housing”.

Future Cities Catapult 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 have demonstrated for the first time at MIPIM UK.

The platform would contain a number of core functions that would allow local planning authorities to identify, prioritise and allocate sites for new development; improving how and at the speed that they allocate land for new development. 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 in a much more precise way than through current methods.

The platform would include a series of open APIs to allow the market to build the digital simulation tools that would plug into a local authority’s shortlist of site allocations – in essence 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 increases 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 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 greater 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 see the impact on planning contributions.

On giving a preview demonstration of the conceptual prototype to a visitor from the US, he likened it to a Bloomberg Terminal for land, planning and housing. The use of platforms to efficiently provide the same information to many users has significantly reduced costs and lowered the barriers to entry in financial services and we hope it will do the same in the land, planning and housing market.

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