Planning needs a federated geospatial mapping service, by Euan Mills

Whilst planning today is done mostly at local level there will always be a need to exchange information between national and regional bodies. Not only for the planning of major infrastructure or cross-boundary projects, but simply to monitor the cumulative impact of the thousands of small decisions made on a daily basis.

In the absence of regional authorities, government relies on local authorities to keep them updated on a raft of different data, from housing need and delivery, to green belt boundaries and brownfield sites.

Local authorities also rely on government and other national bodies to provide them with a range of other data, such as flooding zones from environment watchdog the Environment Agency, mapping data from Ordnance Survey, land ownership data from Land Registry and population data from the Office of National Statistics.

Historically, this transfer of data across different levels of government and different departments meant having to send analogue documents, maps and tables across the country. In the last couple of decades we’ve moved to sending PDF’s and Excel spreadsheets by email which, whilst easier and more timely, is also riddled with issues.

For example, despite the admirable attempts at quality assurance in the way government has been collecting green belt data (which it has been doing since 1997), boundaries are not precise, the schema includes obsolete fields, and most of the metadata is missing.

Or, more recently, the challenges of trying to create a national brownfield sites register, where authorities drip fed government with a haphazard collection of files of varying formats to try to comply with an onerous and confusing data standard requirement.

Challenges with transferring data might not sound important, but not only are they costing the public sector time and money, access to good quality data has the potential to increase certainty and speed up the planning process.

Finding planning information involves forensic navigation across national bodies, government departments and local authority publications to build an understanding of what you can build where. Of course, this isn’t a problem for the consultants and large developers that benefit from the resources and profits the status quo creates, but it leaves small developers and local communities in the dark.

Today we have technology which allows us ways to standardise and transfer huge amounts of complex geospatial data at the click of a button from anywhere on the planet, so why are we struggling to do this with planning data?

Government Digital Services has made great strides with services such as data.gov.uk to create a single stop shop to access all public data, but the challenge with accessing planning data is only partly about knowing where to look. We also need to ensure data is of a good enough quality, standardised and reliable. It’s great that data.gov.uk has a record for all conservation areas in England published by heritage watchdog English Heritage in 2013, but the link is broken and the data is nowhere to be found.

Today public bodies rely on expensive, overly engineered, proprietary geographic information systems (GIS) to produce, store and publish their geospatial data. For a fraction of the money we spend on this nationally we could create a simple and easy to use federated mapping platform. This would be free to use by all public bodies for creating, storing and publishing their geospatial data, whilst at the same time providing the architecture for all the data produced to be effortlessly shared and standardised across the country.

If this sounds overly ambitious we can start small, by creating a national mapping platform for planning authorities to draw local plan proposal maps on. This could provide pre-named layers, inadvertently standardising everything such as green belt boundaries, brownfield sites, conservation areas and other designations. No longer would local authorities need to spend time deciphering government standards and sending unusable and out of date data to government - the data in the system would be standardised and open to all from the start.

Euan Mills is head of digital planning at Connected Places Catapult


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