Open Data Isn’t Just About Informing Citizens, It’s About Understanding Accountability

This guest blog is written by Tom Forth, Head of Data at The Data City, and Head of Data at ODI Leeds.

Everyone agrees the UK needs to better assign land to build greener homes and provide more jobs. But when it comes to specific developments, local opposition quickly swamps support. Can better open data of this planning help?

The first wave of open planning data

Much citizen opposition to development is reasonable. People worry about things like school places, flood risks, or increased traffic congestion. Shouldn’t it be possible to allay these concerns with open data on which schools need expanding, which areas are prone to flooding, or the availability of alternative public transport options?

National and local governments have done well at releasing open data on these things. Private companies have used this open data to provide useful services:

  • Admissions Day uses school admissions data and catchment areas to help parents find schools
  • Flood risk data from The Environment Agency informs easy-to-use services like Check My Flood Risk
  • Apps like Citymapper are built on road congestion and public transport data from organisations like Highways England, Traveline, and Transport for London

Open data has softened opposition to building in the UK. But for every concern addressed by existing open data, new ones spring up. These newer objections are increasingly political and focused on the wider planning system and economic factors. There is much more to do, and to explore.

The second wave of open planning data

Aside from general objections, there are specific issues open data can address. For example:

  • Some people think new homes and business premises aren’t needed because there’s already too many lying empty
  • The practice of land banking worries people – are developers holding onto sites for monetary gain rather than building on them?
  • People prefer development on brownfield sites and not greenfield or greenbelt land
  • Many think developers should pay more for the right to develop
  • The mix of affordable homes, social housing, and family homes proposed by developers often doesn’t align with local perspectives on what’s needed.

Leeds is a good example of using data to overcome issues like the above. The City of Leeds tries to release as much data as possible and there’s now a range of data relating to the planning system that’s rarely available elsewhere. For example, Leeds releases:

  • Ward-level empty home data so developers can make informed decisions on where to build new homes and citizens can see empty buildings in their neighbourhoods
  • Housing land supply so people can see the type and location of houses built in the last two decades and homes planned for the coming decade. This data also helps track whether developers are land banking
  • Machine-readable planning application summaries for all 37,750 planning applications lodged in Leeds in the last five years
  • S106 agreements that show how much money developers contribute to the city in return for planning permission
  • Business rates data so empty shops, factories and offices are easy to track.

This local data can be combined with national data to produce datasets like:

When combined, this data enables planners and advocates of development to quickly respond to common citizen concerns, resulting in a better planning system. This is evident in Leeds where the number of empty homes is at its lowest for decades and still falling, build out rates for sites are typically fast, with the average site being built on within two years of receiving planning permission, and 87% of homes built since 2000 have been on brownfield sites.

The return of politics

Despite big successes there’s still considerable opposition to building in many places. But that opposition is increasingly well-informed (usually thanks to open data) and increasingly political.

Instead of believing there are no bus routes, people worry that bus services aren’t good enough. Instead of arguing about sufficient supply of homes, people think about the quality and affordability of housing. Instead of worrying about flood risk, people fret about air quality and access to parks.

Of course this isn’t always the case. And this shift hasn’t happened everywhere. But after a decade of decreasing budgets, planning departments in local government are leaner than ever before so they’ve had to become better users of data to free up time to do the tasks planners really want to do, including improving the quality of public engagement and involvement with local planning services thanks to open data.

What’s next for open planning data?

All this does not mean planning itself has improved. Planning is ultimately a political act. It should be the collective decision of communities in collaboration with expert planners and elected governments to build places we all want to live, work and play in. This is where we’ve seen fewest improvements.

Better and more open data means little if communities feel they don’t hold power to influence their local environments. When central government ‘calls in’ (haltslocal planning decisions, accountability is diluted. If decisions can always be overruled at higher levels, why engage in the local planning process at all?

The next step to improving planning with data won’t focus on bus timetables, flood risks, or land use but on people, decisions, and power and accountability. People want to understand not just how much S106 contribution a developer paid but how that figure was decided upon and by whom, and what it will be spent on in their community.

Ideas such as open contracting are already helping with this. The UK’s Industrial Strategy commits to increasing transparency on how investment decisions are taken. And UK Parliament’s data team are exploring ways to understand the complexity of politics.

We’re still in the early days of producing and releasing data that documents how politics works. But it wasn’t long ago that data we now take for granted in planning was hard to come by. There’s still much to do but we’re on the right track.

This thought piece expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Connected Places Catapult.