Long-awaited proposals, set to unlock the significant economic, social and environmental opportunities offered by location data and boost the UK’s global geospatial expertise were launched last week, with the publication of the Geospatial Commission’s report - Unlocking the power of location, the UK’s Geospatial Strategy, 2020 to 2025.
Whilst the Geospatial Strategy is separate from national spatial policies and initiatives, ensuring that geospatial data is accessible and more readily available will play a major role in achieving the government’s ambition to level up the economy.
Andy Williams, Carter Jonas’s Head of Geospatial, provides an initial response to report – identifying four key areas of opportunity for the property industry:
An investment of £1 billion over 10 years should ease elements of the planning process, helping to make it more objective and democratic. This improvement should make it easier to combine people, land and property data sets based on location. Currently, neither the Valuation Office Agency nor Land Registry data sets can be pinned to individual buildings, making it challenging to accurately assess local markets. Free access to elements of the Ordnance Survey’s OS MasterMap will enable industry data sites to pin deals precisely to the front door of a property. The inclusion of height data in addresses will equip the industry with a three-dimensional view of buildings. This is of increasing importance, particularly in densely populated, high rise cities.
Plan tech is the next buzz word to hit the industry, the commission is enlisting local authority partners to help sponsor start-ups working on tools to help make decisions about place making. There is already substantial use of drone and satellite imagery to monitor illegal development, and there are algorithms that can predict the chances of approval for planning applications. Going forward, plan tech could have access to enough data to take the politics out of allocating land for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects.
The strategy acknowledges a widening gulf between local authorities performing well, in terms of their ability to make location data available, and those lagging. The more advanced can broadcast search engine optimised GIS layers freely, for example. Whilst other authorities are restricted to a point where even planning policy PDFs are relatively hidden within a council’s website. After two years of trying to provide central government assistance the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government remains unable to achieve a fully functioning national brownfield land register, partly because of this variety in the capabilities of local authorities.
This is being addressed by investment in skills and new professional standards, and although not explicit in the paper, this is one area where the centralised procurement of cloud-based technology could achieve a tremendous advantage.
Lack of available information on pipes and cables in the ground frequently causes complications in the development process, which in turn can result in unnecessary delay and cost – the Commission estimates the cost of cable strikes to be in the region of £1.2 billion per year. This same issue is also a tremendous obstacle to the SMART cities’ agenda. The creation of a National Underground Asset Register could assist in the resolution of these problems. Successful pilot projects in the North East of England and London have already been funded. However, previous initiatives to develop a national blueprint have faltered at this stage. It remains to be seen how much of the country will be covered and in what timescale.
The main barriers are the sheer scale of the task and the energy required to generate a first cut of the data and to keep it updated. Here, the Commission has missed a huge opportunity. There is the potential to harvest the massive volume of survey data collected by industry every day. No mention of this was made in the strategy, yet the measured survey profession is regulated and ready to help.
The natural capital agenda received a substantial nod in the form of initiatives to make land use information fit for green finance markets and help identify opportunities for achieving net-zero. However, rural landowners might be underwhelmed by the proposals in this plan period.
The New Environmental Land Management Scheme (NELMS) needs to be underpinned by a consistent approach to measuring baseline and monitoring enhancements. The Commission will work with DEFRA and other public bodies to develop the craft the framework. As such, private sector bodies such as the NFU and CLA will have to interject to ensure their members' views are heard.
Reinforcing the integration of the UK Hydrographic office into its partnership, the Commission will aid the progression of several green initiatives and renewable energy opportunities such as carbon storage in seagrass and floating wind farms - both of which could help unlock a carbon-neutral economy. Under this new structure, it is hoped greater advances will be made in developing such technology, including satellite and remote sensing capabilities to monitor the health of vegetation, or methods to enable the rapid assessment of sea to shore transmission.