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U+I calls for digital taskforce to fix brownfield data

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Karl Tomusk

The UK needs a “digital taskforce” to combat a “serious gap in understanding” of brownfield land, which is stifling opportunities to build more homes and communities, according to a report from regeneration specialist U+I.

Stemming from an in-depth assessment of brownfield land registers (BLRs) in early 2020, the report Data and the planning system found that the data available is “inconsistent, inaccurate and ill-maintained.”

Meanwhile, the benefits of publishing brownfield data are poorly understood and local authorities lack the resources to fulfil data requirements, it said.

According to the research, some 348,000 new homes could be built on previously developed land in Greater London, Greater Manchester, Cambridge, Oxford, Birmingham and East Berkshire. This amounts to almost a third (29%) of expected housing need in these areas by 2030.

Harnessing that development opportunity would deliver more homes, create jobs, reinvigorate unproductive areas and “provide the spaces that bring happiness to communities,” the report said.

However, it added: “We can’t contribute in the way that we want because the data on which the planning system is increasingly supposed to be built on is unreliable.”

It went on to suggest that the level of potential is likely even higher than the numbers indicate given that “accurate data is simply unavailable”. Neither local authorities nor the property industry have a clear idea of the scale of opportunity.

U+I found that many councils have not updated their BLRs for several years. It found examples of unsuitable sites being included – some were still in active use or were in greenbelt land – incorrectly labelled ownership and a lack of consistency in both basic terms such as ‘brownfield’ and ‘vacant’ and in how registers were completed.

Although BLRs were created to facilitate the delivery of new homes, interviews with councils revealed that this had not been clearly communicated and local authorities did not appreciate their significance.

Developers were similarly disengaged, with most council planning officers reporting that they had received few or no calls from developers about registered sites.

Years of budget cuts – exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic – were blamed for the lack of council resources, which include a skill shortage in data collection and maintenance. Even where the benefits of a BLR are understood, councils lack the resources to communicate it effectively.

“Councils are hard-pressed to collect data, disinclined to maintain it and confused about its value. They need more planning capacity if data is to play a genuine and meaningful role in housing delivery,” the report said.

The report made four recommendations to address these problems:

  • The introduction of a ‘digital taskforce’, whose members would be drawn from local government, development firms and PropTech. This taskforce would work together to assess how best we can create a data-led planning system, which will deliver genuine change across the development industry.
  • More funding so that every planning department can employ a dedicated ‘data specialist’. This individual would be tasked with collating, maintaining and distributing land availability data to ensure that every council is properly equipped for the digital future and can truly benefit from the social and economic impact that data can bring.
  • Data reporting should be standardised across the UK. Developers, central government and umbrella organisations such as the LGA should work together to create a uniform approach to data. They should also develop training materials so that local authorities have the skills they need for the digital world.
  • A minister within the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government should take specific responsibility for data-driven planning. Giving a named minister oversight of this area will highlight the central role that data should play in the planning system and ensure better results in the future than we have experienced in the past

These recommendations follow the initial consultation of the government’s planning white paper last year, which included several proposals for modernising the planning system with digital technologies.

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