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The need to know

25 June 2013

by Andrew Matheson

 

Recently the National Audit Office (NAO) published a critical report of the Government’s New Homes Bonus scheme1 in England. Amongst its comments the NAO says: “We found little evidence that the influence of the Bonus is reflected in increased planning approvals for housing”. That the impact on planning decisions is difficult to discern may largely be a matter of ‘early days’. But the more fundamental NAO criticism is the absence of monitoring regarding the impact of the funding and of effective mechanisms to do this. Monitoring would require the collection and collation of good data.

Umbrella regional bodies used to oversee the collection of accessible data, such that achievements against shared strategy targets could be monitored and demonstrated ‘as live’. In the East Midlands in particular great strides were made. It is as pleasing as it is surprising that some regional data-collection structures survive – indeed Planning Minister Nick Boles spoke at a South West Observatory Conference only recently. But there is now neither opportunity nor incentive for such surviving groups to collaborate to provide national data. Neither is there any incentive for DCLG to address this within the framework of localism. 

Two other interested parties are stepping into this gap: journalists and commercial sellers of information. And so the Telegraph was recently able to assert: “Figures obtained by The Telegraph show that since the [NPPF] changes were published, the number of homes being granted planning permission has jumped by a quarter in England on the previous year” and then quickly move to make a link between the “upsurge in planning permissions being granted” and “an increasing proportion of which are likely to have damaging environmental impact”. The Secretary of State responded:”No-one who loves our idyllic and precious English countryside wants to see the sword of Damocles hanging over it. Myself included”. 

The source of the Telegraph data was Glenigan, a company which “helps you win more construction contracts & leads” and naturally sells its data rather than sharing it. Such planning data is in turn sourced from public records published by our local authorities. But such is the paucity of national data collection now that, in seeking recently to look behind the figures for stalled housing projects, both a government minister2 and the Local Government Association (LGA)3 had to look to Glenigan-extrapolated commercial data, resulting in both opaquely constructed and inaccessible figures being presented in support of two sides of an examination of housing delivery! Even MPs are not able to interrogate the data.4 

Surely in 2013 it should be feasible for us - both professionals and the public - to have real-time and place-specific data of planning consents, at the very least for housing, and their progress? Surely the expertise already exists to capture and present the relatively small quantity of planning applications, consents’ and delivery data (and appeals where appropriate) - compared with say the real-time records of everyone’s PAYE data which has just launched - in an accessible, drillable and searchable format? Actually, we do know that it is feasible as a number of authorities and GLA level already co-operate to collect such data and more than one software company markets suitable systems. But as a software company notes, there is no money in monitoring, and such local authority money as has been spent on monitoring is very liable to cuts.

Illogically, such data collection has little apparent priority and yet every residential property is destined to be recorded, without exception, in the ONS Mastermap and the relevant local authority Council Tax system. Capturing this data at conception, as it were, would seem to be an obvious improvement and probably an overall cost-saver. Properly acknowledging the importance of this information for the monitoring of national policy might also help to better value the role of those locally that cherish, interpret and trail data at source to assure its reliability through accountability. And with the resultant data suitably aggregated and overlaid on a map of, say, designated green belt land (a map which is already available within the RTPI’s Map for England demonstration5) it would helpfully and confidently inform the Telegraph’s – and others’ - encouragement of debate. Perhaps crucially, it could also be the means for LPAs to establish incontrovertibly that they, and their neighbours through co-operation, do have the required 5yr+ level of deliverable land supply against current, real rates of land usage.

As has been noted by others,6 “although monitoring is ‘unavoidable’ it is clear that the function remains the ‘Cinderella’ of plan preparation.” And local authorities will quite rightly say they don’t have the staff to meet increased demands for data returns. But the basic record of all planning applications and decisions is already held electronically and a good proportion of it is held within the servers of the Planning Portal. With some modest work learning from the pioneers, gauging the completeness of coverage, assessing available data for compatibility of formats and bringing together the end-to-end data users, the full potential of disparate collections could surely be realised? The question remains, who might be persuaded not to fight shy of orchestrating the creation of a planning data collection fit for the digital age? This might in part depend on the extent to which the core NAO criticisms are taken and acted upon seriously. Answers in an email please to andrew.matheson@rtpi.org.uk

As Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey possibly suggested some while back: we will never know what we don’t know until we know better than to know only on a need to know basis.

1. The New Homes Bonus; National Audit Office, 2013.

2. eg Hansard: 22 October 2012 Col 627/8W.

3. Planning for Growth: Local Government Association, 2012.

4. See Mr Boles’ reply to Hilary Benn, House of Commons 25 October 2012 Col 996W.

5. Map for England, RTPI & IDOX, 2012.

6. Evidence-based Policy in Planning: An Analysis of Housing Trajectories in England, Stephen Barton and Trudy Harpha, Local Economy, February 2010.

My thanks to Bob Line of B.Line Housing for sharing his wisdom on this topic.

About the author

 

Andrew Matheson is an RTPI Policy & Networks Manager which includes a responsibility for the RTPI-CIH Planning for Housing Network. Prior to the RTPI he worked in housing for both housing associations and local authorities.