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Blog – How digital tools can speed up planning and deliver homes

By Euan Mills, featured on Estates Gazette.

Data and digital technology won’t fix the housing crisis – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – but it could help diversify the housebuilding market. It could also help reduce the risk of development and make it easier for others to enter the market, increase competition and, hopefully, deliver more homes.

The complexity of the planning system, which is multiplied on previously developed land, means the knowledge required to navigate the convoluted and obscure processes involved in profitable large-  and medium-scale housing development is inaccessible to most. So, while this is good for those who use the knowledge (those eight large house building organisations), and for those who sell it (consultants), it excludes everyone else from the market.

One of the biggest barriers to understanding how to navigate the system and access critical information is the public sector. Critical information is still stored in analogue formats; hard to access, harder to understand and even harder to make use of, by human or machine. This is where digital technology can help – making information more accessible to all.

In March 2018 Future Cities Catapult and Gateshead Council were awarded funding from MHCLG’s Planning Delivery Fund to explore how Gateshead could help small developers build more on their brownfield sites. We spent nine months doing user and data research and spoke to over 25 stakeholders.

The outcome was a prototype digital service that provides potential developers the information they need about a site early in the process, increasing certainty and reducing risk. Potential developers can search available sites on the Gateshead website and see a tailored list of constraints and planning requirements for each site. They can access information on the studies required when submitting an application, potential mitigation measures and benchmark costs. This is only been possible by making existing public data-sets available and accessible in one place.

No more survey surprises

Our user research identified 14 characteristics of a site that frequently come up as a surprise to the developers only after they have started the planning process. These include flooding, contamination, protected species, archeological remains as well as 10 further issues. Our prototype is able to provide information on what the implications of these aspects are, the potential cost for mitigation, and any additional studies that would be required by the planning authority. So, if a piece of land is likely to be contaminated, the developer will be advised that a Phase 1 Preliminary Risk Assessment Study will be required. If the contamination is known, the tool would provide a benchmark cost for remediation based on previous data and market intelligence.

The developer will also be given a site-specific list of documents that the planning authority requires for the application to be valid. For example, if a listed building is on or near the site, the developer would be advised that a Heritage Assessment is required, and what the typical cost of one might be. If the site might be home to a protected species, the need for a survey would be flagged.

Lastly, as the developer adds details about the types and tenure of housing they want to build, they are given an estimation of CIL requirements and the likely S106 contributions that will be asked for.

All of this can be done using already existing data that already exists, but is too often in non-machine readable formats, and hidden away by specialist consultants who benefit from that information being inaccessible to most. Data and digital technology can help with this. It can level the playing field between smaller and larger developers, by making the system more understandable and accessible, and by using public data to better quantify risk and ultimately allowing more land to be developed for housing.

With the success of the Gateshead prototype, we’re hoping to collaborate with other local authorities in the future to make planning more transparent and streamline the house building process for the industry as a whole.

You can find out more about this collaborative project between Future Cities Catapult and Gateshead Council, and the SME Homebuilder De-Risking Tool itself by visiting the project page.

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