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How can the UK be a world leader in digitising land data?

04 August 2017 Author: Tom Kenny

Open data on land ownership and other land data can help improve land use planning and tackle the housing crisis. RTPI was amongst the organisations pushing to keep the Land Registry in public ownership in the face of two failed attempts to privatise it.

Not long after privatisation was abandoned for the second time, the Housing White Paper and then Conservative Manifesto introduced bold proposals for making Land Registry data more accessible whilst retaining it in public ownership. Unfortunately, we have heard almost nothing since on how the Government is planning to deliver these proposals.

Those involved with the planning system will be aware of the value of open land data. I’ve been increasingly worried they would get sidelined amongst the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. It is therefore with some excitement that I attended a speech by Mark Prisk MP at a recent event organised by Futures Cities Catapult.

Mr Prisk is the MP for Hertford and Storford. He was Housing Minister from 2012-13 and is currently Vice Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Smart Cities group. Although not speaking in a ministerial capacity, what he said may give us the best insight yet into the discussions that have been going on in the background since the Government first announced its plans for this issue.

So what did Mr Prisk add to the discussion and what plans did he outline?

Plans to merge datasets rather than organisations. This was proposed as a way to avoid bureaucracy and sounds attractive to anyone aware of previous struggles in this area. However, it is arguably a step back from the Conservative manifesto, which promised a more closely integrated approach – ‘a comprehensive geospatial data body within government’.

The need for the data to be released on an open platform to allow the market to create the apps and make the quickest progress. When I heard the word ‘open’ I was reassured, but Mr Prisk did not actually say that he thought the data itself would be released as open data. It would be a very bad idea to go through this effort only to end up with more complex licensing, like e.g. the open but not really open INSPIRE ownership boundary data.

The need to make available not just information on ownership rights, but also land values and restraints on land. To this I would add options taken out on land as well as the beneficial owners. It’s crucial that people can access all the information they need on land, and this includes data that isn’t currently adequately registered.

There are several champions for this agenda in Whitehall. Prisk described this agenda as an excellent chance to secure meaningful progress even amidst the current political quagmire. I wholly agree – some changes will not require legislation, while there would likely be cross-party support for those which do.

All in all, some stirring words. I was especially impressed that he showed a willingness to call out some of the likely opposition to these changes and make it clear why they would not be allowed to stop progress. He also made a call for organisations outside of Whitehall to make the case for these changes. A diverse range of groups can indeed make that case, from start-ups to transparency campaigners, and of course those involved in the planning system.

How can digitising land data help planning?

RTPI’s reply to the most recent consultation on the Land Registry discussed why more open data on land and ownership is essential for underpinning discussions about land use and national housing policy. A complete and open register of land ownership and options taken out on land could make it much easier to assess land availability. It would provide clarity around issues like alleged land hoarding. It would also help to develop better, more informed neighbourhood plans. Land ownership and its spatial distribution and concentration are necessary to understand whether more planning permissions means more housing.

Where do we go from here?

We need firm commitments from the Government.

There is currently no clear information on how this will be funded. For example, Ordnance Survey data is crucial to the UK’s land data infrastructure. However, they have previously opposed attempts to open up particular datasets on the ground that it would challenge their business model.

Furthermore, most of the plans introduced in the Housing White paper and Conservative Manifesto have not progressed since then, at least in public. We need to hear, and where necessary, be consulted on plans for introducing a register of beneficial ownership and options. The Government and the Land Registry also need to announce what triggers will be used to force landowners to register their land. Plans to fully digitise the planning process should also be accelerated.

The last six months have seen a huge amount promised around creating a world leading property and land data service in the UK. Now it is time to turn that promise into reality. Increasing the transparency and accessibility of this information is not just useful for land transactions, but also for improving public policy and helping everyone understand the land around them better. All those who can benefit from this process need to help make the case for it as soon as possible.

Tom Kenny

Tom Kenny

Policy Officer, RTPI
Tom Kenny leads on housing affordability for the policy and research team at RTPI. You can find him on twitter @tomekenny.