Mapping central London’s planning weather (& setting planning information free)

News that the GLA’s Planning London Datahub will start to go live from Monday (see here and the comprehensive blog from the seemingly indefatigable Peter Kemp here) has prompted me to put online my small Lockdown 2.0 #plantech offering.

Honestly, it’s not the Wimbledon weather radar gone awry – instead this tries to visualise the level of interest (measured by comments received, positive and negative) in London’s Westminster area, both over the last fifteen years or so, and, secondly, from applications live at the moment (you can switch layers using the button in the top right). There’s a larger-screen version here.

In one sense I appreciate the geographical scope of this is something of a minority interest, limited to those living / working in Westminster. And the pattern shown is, I think, broadly what one would expect, with greater intensity of interest in those areas where there is greater intensity of use (and planning applications), overlapping with a residential population. In the central London context, that means Soho, and to a lesser extent, Covent Garden and Bayswater. Equally, it is interesting to see large swathes of the city where there appears to be less attention generated.

Of course, this only really shows a correlation, rather than causality so I do not think a huge amount can be read into this, but nevertheless the distribution is (to me, at least) fun to visualise and confirms what I think we instinctively know to be true for most towns; that is that planning activity in some areas will attract more attention and interest than in others.

#opendata

What I think is more interesting – and here’s the connection to the GLA’s project – is the use of data. This map really is a starter for 10, and I’m not sure it really shows anything hugely revealing itself. What I am sure of, though, is of the importance of freeing up the datasets of planning information that are held by LPAs to allow them to be interrogated in a deeper, and more creative, way, including by third parties and the public, through APIs, so that far more talented and imaginative people than me can do far more interesting analysis than I have done, across wider geographical areas.

At the moment this is really, really difficult, not because the data is not there but because it is very difficult to release, and interrogate, from the walled gardens of the (slightly inappropriately named) PublicAccess and similar closed systems.

Whilst I’ve some reservations about some aspects of the GLA’s system (a little on that below), I’m really positive that this could be a huge step forwards in making access to information on planning across London much easier. That trying to track down solid information on development, including housing delivery, in London is so complex is one of my particular bugbears (see my griping here). So, if done right by the GLA (and it all looks positive), I’m really optimistic that this will shine quite a revealing light on both planning decision making and development patterns in London. Crucially, I hope we will see third parties coming up with some very novel – and I suspect quite challenging – analysis and tools based on this information that, at the moment, simply can’t be done (or, certainly, can’t be done without a huge amount of work to circumvent obstacles that, probably, don’t need to be there).

(My slight reservation, with my day job hat on as a planning consultant, rather than as a (very) amateur evangelist for data freedom, is that a lot of the additional information that the GLA is seeking from applicants at the same time as it introduces its new, streamlined, approach to data collection will make submitting many planning applications, especially the smaller ones that perhaps do not have a full professional team onboard, much harder than they are at the moment and than they, probably, need to be.

For example, I’m not quite sure what one can say about sustainable urban drainage arrangements or particulate matter emissions when one is proposing a shopfront application. Or indeed a change of use application – these used to be relatively straightforward but already often require a relatively comprehensive consultant team even when absolutely no physical works are proposed. I do wonder if trying to avoid the increasing difficulties in changes of use applications was a factor in introducing Class E, to take lots of changes outside of planning altogether. In which case, by making those changes of use that remain that much more complex, we may find ourselves pulling in opposite directions. Although isn’t that always the case with planning?)

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