The Alpha stage of the project will be the development of a digital planning tool (the Tool) prototype to support the SME housing building industry. The project objective is to develop a digital tool which is scalable to the extent that it could potentially be adopted by every local planning authorities 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 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.
The aim of the Tool is to make it easier for smaller housing developers to assess site opportunities, navigate planning processes and manage risk. It seeks to do this by bringing together the advice, data and resources needed to make informed decisions about development opportunities in Gateshead.
Successful outcomes from the project will be a functional digital tool providing open data for SME house builders for brownfield sites. An increase in pre-application enquiries, planning permissions and housing completions for brownfield sites will be all measureable outcomes for the Tool. Internally within the council better use of digital data and freed up officer time will demonstrate the benefits of more efficient data use with improved officer productivity.
The conclusion of the discovery phase of the project includes the development of a functional specification for the appointment of an external software developer to develop the working prototype. The key milestones for this Alpha project are:
Tender brief development:
The project team consisting of Local Authority planners, GIS, ICT and procurement officers will finalise the tender brief to ensure that the brief is aligned to the needs of the project objectives. A significant part of this work has already been undertaken as part of the discovery phase.
Advertise tender for the Tool based on functional specification (outputs/objectives) via Gateshead Council procurement platform. Working with procurement colleagues we will ensure that an appropriate duration of time is factored in to allow for detailed submissions from interested parties.
Appointment of external company:
The procurement panel will review the submitted tenders and will shortlist submissions based on the tender assessment criteria. The procurement panel will consist of project partners Gateshead Council and London Borough of Southwark with Future Cities Catapult acting as a ‘critical friend’. The Council project team will consist of planners, digital and ICT officers from the partners.
Project Inception and management:
Gateshead Council will be the lead partner for the project management with the appointed software developer, reporting on project progress including the key milestones and output delivery.
On completion of the software development, project partners will agree to ‘sign off’ the project with the appointed software developer, and prepare a communication strategy for the launch of the Tool.
A project evaluation document will also be produced and published to enable further learning and opportunities for further technology innovation for the Tool to be taken forward by interested stakeholders.
The quantitative and qualitative benefits of the projects are interlinked and have direct impact on each other and will provide positive impacts for both public and private sectors as well as the wider community.
In quantitative terms the user research element of the discovery phase identified ongoing siloed working, duplication of effort and inconsistency of data management within local authorities and the wider public sector. This creates inefficiency which if quantified in financial terms across an individual local authority could potentially lead to significant amounts of resource spent on non productive activities. The ability to develop a bespoke, user centred and digitised data tool has the potential to make significant savings for local authorities, and free up officer time for more value adding activity in the planning and housing services.
Increased access to open data that is streamlined and with appropriate pedigree ensures that housing proposals based on data from the Tool will be better informed and therefore more aligned with policy and ultimately financially deliverable. Increasing the detailed knowledge of a site for a SME developer is the biggest de-risking action the tool can achieve. Improving competition within the development sector will lead to a higher standard of housing product and solution to better meet market need. Gateshead Council as a Community Infrastructure Levy charging authority will be able to access increased CIL contributions and S106 contributions towards infrastructure investment which are also required to deliver sustainable communities.
Increasing local housing delivery will also enable Gateshead Council to claim increased levels of ‘New Homes Bonus’ and Council Tax revenue income to assist in sustaining and improving vital council services as part of wider corporate service reviews.
The discovery phase of the project involved a detailed user research phase in which a range of stakeholders including end users (SME developers) were engaged to help inform and frame the scope of the problem, and identify possible measures to help increase the number of brown field sites developed by SMEs. The research was undertaken via explanatory interviews out of which the key learning points were collated and analysed.
The research identified that ‘at risk cost’ is the highest barrier to entry into the development sector in Gateshead. The majority of the SMEs are unable to afford the up front cost linked to obtaining planning permission for site without the certainty that permission would be approved.
In Gateshead land remediation was perceived to be the biggest ‘pain point’ for developers. In particular the uncertainty of what levels of site contamination are on a site before intrusive investigations are required. Gateshead’s industrial and mining legacy means that remediation is required for most sites. SME’s simply cannot afford purchase or invest in a site, where there is a risk it would be unviable to deliver, or unacceptable in planning policy terms.
The research identified that Gateshead Council had approximately 65% of the data required to help inform SME developers about the development potential of a site. However, this data was predominately not in digital formats e.g. PDFs or not easily accessible (on the Council website) or not even published.
Engagement with external public sector bodies identified an inconsistency in the approach to accessible data, with some moving towards more accessible data while others not willing to engage or provide accessible data due it being only available under licence.
User testing sessions of an early prototype established specific user needs relating to key functionality, with a requirement that the software is agile enough to allow further development in subsequent phases.
The Discovery phase of the project has been open and shared with interested parties in particular MHCLG and local authorities part of the ‘Innovation Network’ . The Tool and wider project learning will also be published to demonstrate the important role the public sector as a whole has in improving the quality and accessibility of data. 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 North East Local Authority review panel 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.
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.
The outputs from this Alpha project have the potential to be of national significance for local authorities. The project could be a catalyst not only for digital change within local authority planning services but also the competitiveness of the SME house building sector
In demonstrating the business case for the project, the benefits are envisaged to be applicable not only across planning services within local authorities, but also across the wider organisational structure and the public sector. The ability to demonstrate a business and/or benefits case will help to support local authorities to make the step change in how data is managed and aligned with planning and housing objectives.
A full project write up incorporating the discovery and alpha phases, and project evaluation will be produced and published as part of the national launch of the Tool.
The project will produce a bespoke user friendly digital tool which is streamlined with open access to key datasets and supporting user instructions which will maximise the ability for other local authorities to develop or adopt the ‘Tool’.
The project is well advanced and the working prototype to be developed based on the functional specification and has been developed through user testing and agile development sprints to ensure that proposed working solution to the problem is effective and deliverable. The tool will be web-based and will ideally be responsive and suitable for devices including laptops, tablets and mobile phones.
All key project documentation including full user journey, research and the working prototype will be made available and publicised to maximise the opportunity for shared learning and project impact. The working prototype will be based on live and current data sets so once in place can used immediately to help support housing delivery across the UK.
The discovery phase of this project included a significant amount of research to identify the end users (SME developers) of the tool and their functional requirements. The anticipated end users were engaged and helped to shape the emerging software development sprints. In order to ensure the ‘Tool’ maximises potential for all local authorities, the Alpha project will address the research objective of ‘scalability’. In order that this part of the project is robust, engagement through the ‘North East Local Authority Review Panel’ and London Borough of Southwark will be undertaken. The research will establish any common scalability challenges which need to be factored in to software design as well as any self assessment actions individual local authorities will need to take if they are considering adopting the Tool.
A Gateshead SME developer forum has been established which holds regular ‘meet ups’ with active companies in the area. This forum provides SME developers will regular updates on planning and housing issues in Gateshead and provides an ideal point of contact to engage with the project. This forum was also engaged with during the discovery phase and so the SMEs early feedback has been fed into functional specification and there is an ongoing interest and ownership to the progress of the Tool.
The research objective of scalability will be fed into existing discovery learning landscape and taken forward alongside the functional specification for the development of the working Tool.
Throughout the process the Gateshead Council project team consisting of planners, GIS, ICT and digital officers will be fully engaged to ensure that emerging outputs from the project are communicated across the staff and colleagues from relevant departments who will also be potential users of the Tool.
The Discovery phase of the project has identified inconsistencies across the public sector which, as ‘gatekeepers’ of specific datasets, will be fundamental to the functionality of the Tool. Assistance is therefore requested in making the case to change the culture of public sector guardians of data and open up more data sets (including raw data) to enable access and to facilitate delivery, rather than a short-term income opportunity. This would involve continuing to promote public sector organisations to sign up to the Digital Declaration and challenging organisations who hinder the move towards more open data standards.
In March 2018 Gateshead Council and project partners Future Cities Catapult were successful in an Expression of Interest for the Planning Delivery Fund (Innovation). The project commenced with a ‘blank sheet’ discovery approach to understand the problem and produce a functional specification for the ‘Tool’. This discovery phase brought together complex interaction of the user research, data collation and system architecture specification. Gateshead Council can confirm that no other funding has been sought for the delivery of this Alpha project prior to this bid to the Local Digital Fund.