A clearer plan

Solving planning inefficiencies with open data

Stefan Webb Future Cities CatapultThe rise of open data offers the potential for local authorities to ease the costly headache of paying consultants for evidence base documents as they prepare Local Plans, writes Stefan Webb of Future Cities Catapult.

The planning system is the meta Mystic Meg. Planners have to think about the future of jobs, homes, environment, transport, industry, and retail all at once when developing a plan for a city, town or district. Whilst distinguished think-tanks convene boards of academics, industry leaders and ex-ministers, local planning departments and real estate developers are reliant on outsourced analysis, with little capacity or incentive to challenge the forecasts they are given.

Sitting behind a local plan or planning application is a veritable forest of what are called evidence base documents.  In the case of local plans these seek to understand the current state of different systems in a place.

This analysis of the present day is then used as the basis for forecasts of how that is likely to change in the future; how climate change will increase the probability of flooding, how changes in industry and the economy will affect the amount and type of floorspace different types of businesses will need and so on.

Broadly speaking, the purpose of the evidence base for an application is to measure the positive and negative externalities of its proposal so that negative externalities can be mitigated through design or, at least, offset by cash and also gauge a development’s compliance or fit with planning policy.

Limited, slow and expensive

Evidence base documents are one of the slowest components of the planning system and the most expensive for planning authorities and property developers. Traditionally these were conducted in-house but new public management trends surrounding austerity have meant that they are now, more often than not, produced by specialist planning consultants.

As a result, there is limited resource or skill in-house to effectively procure, manage, understand and challenge the work of consultants. They are are paid to collect the same data and analyse it the same way for different local planning authorities and developers across the country.

One local planning authority received an evidence base study for its Local Plan, which had clearly been recycled, as the name of a neighbouring authority was still on the footer. This anecdote demonstrates the current circumstances for consultants. Moreover, the cost savings and efficiencies of this way or working are retained by consultants and not passed onto planning authorities or developers.

Whilst much of the analysis that underpins an evidence base study is rich in data, the local planning authority or developer is presented with a PDF, limiting the ability of users to interrogate or re-use the data, the methodology or even the assumptions that sit behind them, which has significant consequences.

The lack of transparency of application evidence base documents leaves the door open for developers to choose data, make assumptions and design methodologies that accentuate the positive and ignore the negative externalities of their development.

A paradigm shift

There needs to be a paradigm shift in the way the planning system handles evidence. With more of the raw data required for evidence base documents being standardised, open and machine readable, we should think of the planning system as a platform on which new software applications augment and eventually replace PDFs.

In the short term, developers and local planning authorities could procure these evidence base studies in a different way, seeking access to the data pools many consultancies hold, purchasing algorithms instead of pdfs.

We know that much of this is already possible:

  • A Clearer Plan is a proof of concept project by ODI (Open Data Institute) Leeds that Future Cities Catapult supported as part of our Future of Planning programme. This pulls together different open data sets to give neighbourhood planners or community developers access to as much of the evidence base data they would need for their neighbourhood plan or planning application.
  • Prospective Labs is developing a platform that uses near real time data to analyse and predict transport movements.
  • FuturePlan is a clickable prototype developed by Future Cities Catapult with Birmingham City Council, that explores what could be done with more consistent and accessible evidence base data.

If we better value the data that inform planning evidence bases, create greater transparency around the methods and assumptions they make, and house these within digital platforms, we can begin to automate much of the analysis.

This will save time and money for local authorities and property developers alike, which will inevitably improve the costs and delivery of badly needed homes and workplaces, schools and hospitals.

The digital transformation of planning evidence bases would create the foundation for City Information Models, a 3D model that connects with BIM and other data sources or analysis tools of various city components, which that would be the crucible for a new kind of public and political planning and decision making system.

Future Cities Catapult is an innovation agency dedicated to improving urban living and helping businesses create and sell technologies that will shape the future of cities. Stefan Webb is the director of digitising planning and standards.

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