Planning data must be overhauled to enable better informed decisions

Planning may be top of everyone’s minds right now, but the data underpinning it is in desperate need of an overhaul, according to the panel of the latest tm:tv session “Understanding the value of planning data”:

Led by Martin Manning, Head of Account Management at tmgroup, the session focused on how the UK needs to take a long, hard look at how it utilises planning data to help conveyancers and their clients make more informed decisions about the potential changes on their doorstep – before they complete on a purchase.

The quality of planning data is a postcode lottery 

One of the key blockers to achieving this is the varying degrees of quality and available planning data across the different Local Authorities. This is an area where a Government-led standardisation initiative – similar to the current digitisation of the LLC data – could drive seismic change in the use and processes surrounding planning data. However, this would be quite the task, as Stuart Tym commented: “The quality and availability of data varies massively between different Local Authorities, with the better ones having portals with interactive maps and the ability to look at the properties in the immediate vicinity, whilst others have such limited functionality that you can only search against the individual planning application reference – and not even search against the property itself to help reveal any past or associated applications. We need to move to a place where everything is stored as data – not documents – as it’s also very time-consuming to open and review several individual documents all called ‘planning application’ to find the information you need.”

These inefficiencies were further highlighted by Max Jarmey, who commented: “The access to raw planning data as it currently stands is often manual and really time-consuming for people to manipulate, manage and use. This was recently discussed in the ‘Changes to the current planning system’ consultation in 2020, which has since released a mission statement for information being findable, accessible, re-offerable and reusable. Unfortunately, there is a significant lack of controlled standards and we need to explore new ways of opening up Local Authority data in a more consistent and usable way – similar to what we’ve seen with the formation of Geo6 and the release of OS and Coal Authority data – to make a real difference.”

“Use it or lose it” would help address the problem of older applications being lost from sight 

Despite these good intentions, historical data also poses unique challenges in the standardisation of planning data, as Stuart Tym commented: “Historical data never ceases to cause issues for us. For example, if a planning application is much beyond the 2005/ 2006 creation of digitised planning registers, they will have been scanned and named with no standard concept, and I’ll end up reviewing 50 documents all called “planning application” to piece together the information that I need. This is in need of a substantial review, otherwise we risk being stuck with a system of pre-2020 vs. post-2020 data. We must find a way to bring them all into one place.”

One possible solution is to cleanse old data out of the system with a “use it or lose it” policy against older, existing and approved planning applications, as Stuart Tym continued: “When it comes to the issue of cleaning historical data out of the system, it could really help to introduce a “use it or lose it” policy to avoid incidents of applications from the 70s – which could have been sat in the back of a cupboard, with no visibility for the Local Authority, conveyancer or their client – suddenly cropping up and coming to fruition, and subsequently turning someone’s beautiful field view into an estate of 200 houses.”

It may not be quite as simple a solution however, as Paul Addison explained: “How do you force a developer to go ahead on a site that they are very fearful of getting a return on? Developers have always been accused of land banking, but it makes sense to build to meet sales demand. The other challenge we have is a skills shortage – and Brexit has not helped the matter – so it genuinely isn’t possible for even the biggest developers to increase their volumes from 10-12,000 units a year to 16,000 to make use of all of their sites, even if they wanted to. It would be more practical to review how all data is inputted and managed by the Local Authorities themselves. Rubbish in, rubbish out, as they say.”

Data must be readily available for everyone

It’s not just about the quality and consistency of the data either. It’s also a matter of making the data accessible for everyone involved, no matter how qualified they are, as Max Jarmey commented: “We need to democratise planning data and make planning applications more accessible and understandable. As it currently stands, unless you are an architect, it’s quite hard to decipher. There is potential for 3D models to make a difference here and some projects are already underway experimenting with this technique in and around the London boroughs.”

There also needs to be changes to the way in which developers are obliged to publicise planning applications, as Stuart Tym commented: “The rules haven’t changed since the 70s, and so it still stands that the minimal legal requirement is to advertise a planning application on a lamppost, and place an ad in the local paper and so on. This approach drastically needs updating to start including new communication channels, such as social media.”

All data must be captured in one system

Yet even if all of these issues were to be resolved overnight, the very definition of planning data needs to be reconsidered in line with a thorough review of exactly what should be included, from which sources, and where exactly it could and should all be captured – all in one place.

Particularly as useful planning information reaches far beyond the realms of current, active planning applications, as Paul Addison commented: “There is so much planning-related data out there that has the potential to affect the long term value and enjoyment of a property, including Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessments (SHLAA), Neighbourhood plans, and more. We’re even at a point where Greenfield land isn’t safe, especially in areas where Local Authorities don’t have a robust plan for meeting their housing supply needs over the next 5 years, as this creates opportunities for developers to bypass traditional planning applications and build wherever they like.”

There’s the further complication that all changes aren’t recorded under traditional planning applications and therefore not visible to conveyancers or their clients either, as Stuart Tym commented: “The change of purpose of agricultural land does not require an formal planning application to be approved, for example, so a homebuyer could get an unpleasant surprise when the use of a picturesque field suddenly changes. There are also exceptions when it comes to the change of use of a nearby building – a Class E change – such as a shop changing to a dance studio, which wouldn’t be captured in a standard planning application in the local area.” 

As the session came to an end and the true complexities of transforming planning data had come to light, Martin Manning concluded: “There’s lots of data out there that isn’t accessible in a single location, making it harder for conveyancers to investigate, and easier for something significant to get missed. In the years ahead, we really need to focus on capturing this data more accurately and consistently, all in one place – that’s the crux of the issue.”

What do you think? Find out more by watching the full tm:tv session here.