Nissa Shahid blogs about the latest of our Future of Planning design sprints on using digital tools to effectively monitor housing delivery numbers.
Monitoring the impact of a local plan should be an essential part of a plan-led system. Unless you measure how the built environment has changed, there is no hope of understanding whether policies have had the impact intended or learn from and improve policies in the future. Yet most planning authorities struggle with even the seemingly simple task of counting the number of new homes completed in their area in any one year.
Accurately measuring housing completions requires extensive analysis of local housing delivery based on accurate information. The reality is that, due to significant cuts in planning authority budgets and the undervaluing of data this kind of work has sometime even fallen to planning officers touring their area on a bus once a year, counting doorbells and curtains as a means of gathering numbers. Unsurprisingly, the accuracy of the resulting figures isn’t always high.
It is strange to think that amidst one of the biggest housing crises in the UK, few are engaging with the challenge of recording reliable and timely housing figures. How can we expect to find answers when we don’t know the extent of the problem at hand? If we can’t even measure how many homes have been completed, what hope is there for measuring the impacts and outcomes of new development that the planning system can deliver such as jobs for local people, improved environmental performance and even improved happiness and wellbeing.
Oliver Letwin’s draft review findings, published this weekend, emphasised the problem with the lack of data available to conduct his review, stating;
“…we have been somewhat dismayed by the paucity of publicly available data on land holdings and build out rates.”
At the beginning of this year we, at Future Cities Catapult, contacted all 356 councils in England to find out more about how they monitored housing figures. While some councils have managed to come up with some impressive solutions to overcome issues with resourcing and data collection (including advanced automated databases, complex GIS systems and using cross-departmental sources to verify numbers), none of these solutions are replicable to other local planning authorities, as they are tied to the way in which council departments are structured and the legacy IT systems they use. It was in this light that we held the second of our internal Future of Planning design sprints with involvement from Waltham Forest, Tower Hamlets, Barnsley and Milton Keynes Councils (to name a few). The solution to better monitoring couldn’t be one that locked out smaller councils or was too reliant on a complex system that made it difficult for bigger councils to monitor. At the same time, we had to find something implementable using existing sources and databases.
The prototype we conceived in this sprint uses various data sources establish the reliability and accuracy of housing applications, permissions, starts and completions. Instead of relying on a single source of data for a definitive answer, the proposed system develops assumptions at varying confidence ratings by overlaying a range of different data sets, each which have their own weighting.
This would also make it much easier for authorities to generate an Annual Monitoring Reports at the click of a button, knowing that you are able to trust the data and understand the margins of errors based on the assumptions it has made. Whilst our work was limited to monitoring housing delivery, the same data-driven approach could be applied to how we monitor other impacts of Local Plans and planning applications, be that new green space, jobs created, or employment space rented. In time, this freeing up resources in this way can shift the monitoring of planning policy from output focused to outcome focused.
Our work showed that in the future, data analytics – working in tandem with skilled planners – have the potential to give the planning system and local communities a far better insight into the impact of planning policies on health and wellbeing, social justice and sustainability. But for now, we need to get our basic numbers in order through better data collection on local plans. This will empower more local authorities to automate aspects of their monitoring system and move to a more effective and outcome focused system.