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Digital Land Services presses for disruption


Paul Maltby believes the housing, land and planning sectors are ripe for digital disruption, but that they need to be able to get at more high quality data to make the potential count.

The Conservative Party identified this as an important issue for government in last year’s general election manifesto, and it has now taken shape as one of the workstreams within the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

As its chief digital officer Maltby has oversight of the Digital Land Services programme, and sees it as a crucial step in opening up the potential of the growing ‘proptech’ sector and making it easier for local government to improve the planning process and work effectively with housing developers.

“We think there is a big role from a central perspective to improve the quality of digital ready data for the public sector and get it into the hands of external developers to improve things like planning services,” he says.

“It’s very much trying to enable and encourage a digital disruption in the wider market. This can bring productivity benefits to help people build more houses in the right places and to reduce the time and cost of development.”

Catapult and Registry

Work has already been done in other organisations, notably the Future Cities Catapult, which last year launched a prototype Land Information Platform, and in some local authorities. In addition, HM Land Registry has a handful of projects aimed at making the buying and selling of property and land easier.

In addition, the recently formed Geospatial Commission could well focus some of its efforts on relevant fields after it reveals its national strategy.

Maltby says the MHCLG is “shoulder to shoulder” with those organisations while looking at a wider range of data elements around land, planning and construction. It also wants to go beyond the national Planning Portal, which was developed back in the 2000s as a channel to submit applications, in extending the amount of data available.

A small team has been set up with policy and digital services elements to push the programme. The latter is just completing a discovery process and looking at services and tools that could be prototyped to help authorities’ officials and developers find data more easily.

Maltby says this goes beyond looking to GOV.UK to sources such as brownfield registers, which is not as straightforward as it needs to be, and addressing the business model and licensing terms around the data.

“When you find those datasets, for various good reasons they are not easy to work into what you need for frictionless digital services,” he says. “It’s not coordinating, more a sense that there is a lot of ground here and we perhaps have a broader perspective.

“In the end we’re all just trying to get high quality data to fuel digital services and we’re trying to think about what those services are and helping them get built. These things are not in contradiction.”

Register of applications

An early step has been taken with the commitment to develop a national register of planning applications, providing a central source of data that in a consistent format. At the moment the team is trying to develop a better understanding of what is needed and the challenges and to identify the options for a solution.

“We’re interested in improving the experience of people going through planning applications, in the cost-effectiveness of local authority services, and in making sure we can improve the accessibility of that data,” Maltby says.

“Long term I’m sure there will be some shifts in how that data is provided that we start to see in local authority services generally; but shorter term we want to do what we can to understand how to access data from legacy systems – maybe scraping it or through APIs. It’s something that our discovery work on the planning register might help us find a way through.”

Other work has involved a discovery project researching the barriers that users run into in trying to find and use housing data. Among those that often emerge are that geographical boundaries are only available as images embedded in PDF documents, or that precise values that are needed are not available.

One of the main early findings has been that much of the data needed is buried within broader collections of information, which makes it more difficult to extract and process.

There can also be an issue around just knowing where to look for the datasets, which could be held by local authorities, arm’s length bodies or other organisations. One of the prime aims of the progamme is to clarify all this and make it easier for government and the developers.

Shining a light

“We’re also interested in shining a light on the really interesting work going on in the sector already,” Maltby says.

There is also a potential to link the effort with MHCLG’s contribution to developing standards and a stronger data infrastructure to support digital services.

“We’re thinking about data standards in the context of this work with common patterns around digital services, and need to understand that those standards have to emerge from the experience of local authorities building services. We don’t want to dictate in abstract from hundreds of miles away.

“We are here as part of a movement of people in local government who understand that digital services must change for the benefit of citizens and those working in local authorities.”

Overall, he describes the initiative as “a huge opportunity to bring some of those sectors around housing, planning and land into the digital age”.

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