Vision for a ‘live hub’ for planning data, accessible to all Londoners

A big, behind-the-scenes project at the GLA will enable a richer view of development planning in London, write Molly Strauss and Theo Blackwell

Here at City Hall we’ve been thinking about how digital transformation can truly be brought to the planning system: improving data for citizens and planners alike to understand development much better than currently across London.

We also estimate it could significantly reduce the almost £3m in spending by cash-strapped planning departments across a number of services.

Planning is ‘core business’ for the GLA, so it’s right that we look again at our capabilities. In our first post in June, we shared the findings from our research on the London development Database (LDD) — how the 35 local planning authorities currently provide data on coming developments to City Hall.

Our conversations with 26 councils identified a number of inefficiencies in this process, and many planners expressed a strong desire for change.

We’ve spent the summer developing a plan for how to streamline this data sharing in a way that maximises the possible benefit for London.

Below we set out a vision of what we expect digital transformation of London’s planning system to achieve.

The problem

To recap — at the moment there are real problems collecting accurate planning data from across London.

The information required by City Hall is limited to what we require in the London Development Database. Moreover, the 35 planning authorities each collect the data in different ways.

This leads to an incomplete picture of the pipeline of development in London: the data we do gather focuses mainly on new dwellings that have been given permission, commenced development and their completions. For commercial development, we currently collect information about major changes of use and major industrial development (over 1000sqm) and loss of public open space.

However, this is where it ends — the inherited status quo stops us asking deeper questions which are valuable to understand what is going on, like:

  • pipeline development — i.e. projects that have not yet been approved (this would enable us to spot patterns of developments that we, and the government, can’t see at the moment).
  • schemes that are refused (this would enable us to understand any patterns of decisions).
  • small commercial developments (less than 1000 sqm) limiting analysis of small developments
  • question of diversity — e.g. traveller sites under threat from changes of use

This situation has been compounded by planning authorities locked-in to a number of proprietary IT systems, expensive to change and with limited functionality.

Our research found across London:

Data extraction is a key issue, sometimes becoming so complex that it requires specialised staff. System fields frequently do not reflect planning authorities’ needs nor the database requirements. Proper integration between these systems and authorities’ other software — or even modules created by the same provider — is consistently a challenge.

Our Vision

Our ambition is to create a ‘live hub’ of planning and development information, accessible to all Londoners by reforming the information we collect and the way we collect it.

We will request the data we need for monitoring up front, on the initial planning application. This data will pass seamlessly into authorities’ improved back-office systems, where planners will verify it, and then automatically out of those systems to City Hall and onto a public website.

This will require some changes.

First, the burden for filling out information should be pushed to the applicant (the developer) not the local authority.

Secondly, as the market need changes the current crop of IT suppliers of planning systems will have to change their products to be more responsive.

A new live hub would include information currently collected by the London Development Database, but also much more — including a feed of planning applications from all 35 planning authorities (made up of the GLA, the boroughs, and the two development agencies).

The hub would still require minimum information to be collected by council planning authorities, but should be more cost-efficient for boroughs than the current monitoring process.

Benefits

Automation will lower the burden on council planning authorities and free up resources — the existing methods for completing the London Development Database requirements together cost London’s councils approximately £750,000 annually for a service which could also be fundamentally improved.

But we expect this project to deliver benefits beyond lightening the load on planning authorities.

Better policy

The live hub of planning data will become an improved evidence base for plan making at the local level and for City Hall. It will help inform decisions on individual schemes and enable transparent decision making.

Savings from going paperless

City Hall can investigate solutions to other problems facing London — including potentially digitising notification letters to adjacent properties, as Camden has already done. In our estimation this would reduce costs by around £2.2 million across London. This brings the potential savings to almost £3m per annum across the city.

Borderless planning

The hub would support ‘borderless planning’, allowing planners to consider information beyond the boundaries of their individual planning authority when making decisions. With additional and better data on development, council planning authorities and City Hall can more effectively monitor the delivery of planning policy objectives.

Better infrastructure planning

Getting an earlier view of the development pipeline can also improve planning for infrastructure delivery — alerting water, energy, transport, and digital connectivity providers to coming development so that they can prepare appropriately, via the London Infrastructure Mapping Application.

London Infrastructure Map, now live

New products

Our live data hub can serve as the foundation for other projects in the public and private sectors. With better data tech firms can use the data to develop innovative new products and services for council planners and developers.

If we successfully streamline our monitoring process and develop this live hub for London, in collaboration with our 35 planning authorities, we can pass on our learning to other cities and regions across the UK looking to digitise planning.

How we’ll do it

Our research revealed that we cannot simply create an automated link between planning authorities and the London Development Database and expect the right data to flow into City Hall.

Realising our vision will require changes to the whole development data journey — from planning application, to local monitoring, to making information available to the public.

In our next post, we’ll explain our plan for how to address each stage of the process.

Contact Peter Kemp, the GLA Planning Change Manager, and Molly Strauss, Principal Policy and Programme Officer with queries