The alpha stage of the project will be the development of a digital planning tool (the Tool) which will be a live functional prototype based on Gateshead Council data to support the SME house building industry. The project objective is to develop a product that is scalable to the extent that it could potentially be adopted by every local planning authority in the UK. This stage of the project will build upon the completed discovery phase which mapped out the user journey and identified the key data requirements and user objectives for the tool.
The discovery phase demonstrated that the Tool would be used by smaller housing developers to assess brownfield (previously developed) site opportunities, navigate planning processes and manage risk. This will be achieved by bringing together the advice, data and resources needed to make informed decisions about development opportunities in Gateshead. These hypotheses and insights will be tested through the appointment of an external software company to develop the working prototype of the Tool.
The discovery phase of the project has been open and shared with interested parties including MHCLG and local authorities part of the ‘Innovation Network’. As part of the project Gateshead Council has partnered with the London Borough of Southwark to enable the ‘Tool’ to be tested in different contextual settings. Additionally, the project will see the establishment of a local authority working group whose role will be to engage on ‘scalability’ considerations for the Tool to ensure that any barriers preventing this being achieved are identified and built into software operating system. Partnering with Newcastle City Council will support this action.
The Tool not only presents an opportunity to challenge and redesign current working practices of data management within local government and the wider public sector but also to help to overcome some of the siloed and fragmented data sets that are fundamental in helping to deliver more homes on brownfield sites which is advocated in national and local planning policy.
An increase in pre-application enquiries, planning permissions and housing completions for brownfield sites will all be measurable outcomes for the Tool. Internally within the council better use of digital data and freeing up of officer time will demonstrate the benefits of more efficient data use.
The application is accompanied a copy of the User Testing Overview which includes details of the methodology and suggested improvements. A copy of the Software Requirements Specification for the tool is also provided submitted separately via email.
Gateshead Council’s Brownfield Register identifies a minimum of 5293 homes that could be developed on brownfield sites. Currently, the advantage lies with the larger housing developers who have more resources to assess site opportunities, navigate planning processes and manage risk. This creates a lack of competition in certain housing market areas, restricting the pace of housing supply. That is the common problem that the project seeks to address.
The aim of the Tool is to enable Council officers to make it easier for smaller housing developers to assess site opportunities, navigate planning processes and manage risk through improved digital services. It seeks to do this by bringing together the guidance, data and resources needed to make informed decisions about development opportunities in Gateshead. This will include the innovative brownfield risk calculator which has been developed separately with the British Geological Survey.
Gateshead Council’s adopted Core Strategy and Urban Core Plan focuses on the development of brownfield sites within the Borough as means to delivering sustainable urban regeneration priorities. However as demonstrated by recent housing delivery and engagement with the development sector this is a significant challenge given the industrial and coalmining legacy of the area.
The following extract from a paper by Daniel Watney on ‘The challenges of brownfield land’ highlights that the issue applies UK wide.
Contamination is a particular bugbear – particularly on former industrial sites. While many obstacles can be identified in advance, advanced mapping cannot easily estimate the price of decontamination. The problem here is that detailed site investigations telling you the full story normally do not happen until the planning process has begun.’
The key feedback during user testing (submitted separately via email) was that the underlying aim of the tool needed to change. Previous user research had indicated that understanding the financial risk was a key priority for developers. However, one participant summed up the views of others by suggesting that he ‘wouldn’t use it’ for costing a proposal, but would use it to ‘scan what’s wrong with a site so I can send it to my architect’.
When testers followed up on that, it was unanimous that the Tool would be more useful as a quick, data driven checklist of ‘abnormals’, site considerations (like Tree Preservation Orders), and a one-stop-shop for council related costs (like CIL and Section 106 estimations). It is this user research that has informed next steps and providing such a tool will ultimately improve the pace of housing supply on brownfield sites.
The application is accompanied by a copy of the User Testing Overview which includes details of the methodology and suggested improvements. A copy of the Software Requirements Specification for the tool as well is also provided.
Gateshead Council, like many other local authorities, faces significant challenges delivering the housing numbers set out in the strategy and plan that have been adopted for the borough. These documents set out a need for 11,000 new homes in Gateshead up to 2030. The majority of this housing will be delivered via development in the urban areas of Gateshead with a significant proportion of that total (5,293) on previously developed land. Such brownfield sites come with a range of constraints from contamination to coal mining history that impact on the speed and viability of development. The benefit of the Tool therefore includes the acceleration and facilitation of the building of up to 5,293 houses by providing SME house builders with the information that they need as part of a ‘one stop shop’ service.
There will also be efficiency savings as it is estimated that approximately 80 council officers (planning, estates, architects and engineers) would make use of the tool as part of their daily routines. Based on a full time equivalent (37 hours) working week and an average 15% time save by utilising the tool across the week then over the course of a 5 year period an approximate efficiency saving of £120k which equates to £24k per year. When translated across the 363 local planning authorities in England alone that equates to £8m per year or £44m in potential efficiency savings. This saving does not take into account the improved access and time savings for local Councillors and residents who have a specific interest in brownfield sites in their own communities.
This situation is far from unique to Gateshead and is echoed in Newcastle and London. An extract from a paper by Daniel Watney on ‘The challenges of brownfield land’ highlights the situation across the country –
‘Our analysis, based on official data, highlights councils across England containing viable land for nearly half a million homes. Our detailed sample makes up 45% of local authorities (LAs) in England. While LAs vary greatly in size and location, we can estimate with some confidence that the total volume of brownfield land across other sites is likely to increase this number by a significant margin.’
Given the amount of brownfield land highlighted above, the impact of the Tool would therefore multiply exponentially if it was rolled out to other local authorities. Not only would house building be brought forward but local authorities would also benefit sooner from increased revenue through Council Tax receipts and New Homes Bonus. This increased revenue would be used to deliver services to the public.
A beta application is not necessarily envisaged as the alpha project will demonstrate the value of the project in Gateshead. This will allow other local authorities to buy into the software and for the Tool to be rolled out. An alternative is to engage with Homes England to explore a co-ordinated national roll out.
The application is accompanied by a copy of the User Testing Overview which includes details of the methodology and suggested improvements. A copy of the Software Requirements Specification for the tool is also provided.
The project partners for the discovery phase consisted of Gateshead Council and Future Cities Catapult (now renamed Connected Catapult) based in London. For the alpha phase with new partners it is anticipated that technology such as Skype (for business) will again be used for virtual meetings and will allow project partners to stay in touch. Dedicated ‘Slacks’ and email/telephone calls will provide a mechanism for regular informal communication. Therefore, the distance between the new project partners is not seen as a significant constraint on the successful delivery of the project.
The project will be managed using PRINCE2 project management principles and will follow the Gateshead Council project management framework with key milestones set out within a project plan. The project will report into the Council’s Digital Board. Highlight reports will be presented to the board and exception reports as necessary. The project will be supported by officers from across Gateshead Council including from planning, digital services, ICT, finance, procurement and legal.
As stated, the project will establish a local authority working group consisting of project partners and key stakeholders whose role will be to engage on ‘scalability’ considerations for the Tool. The benefit of including a North East city authority and a London Borough provides a good bench mark to be tested against. It will ensure that any barriers preventing this being achieved are identified and built into software operating system. Involving a wider number of local authorities will provide benefits in terms of maximising the sharing of information and learning across a larger area locally, regionally and nationally.
As identified in section 2.4 a beta application is not necessarily envisaged as a fully functional prototype for Gateshead will be the project outcome. However, a discussion on whether a beta application could support roll out to other local authorities with key stakeholders such as Homes England and MHCLG would be welcome.