We recently wrote about the power imbalance between councils and property developers that’s significantly reducing the amount of affordable housing being built. Instead of strategic planning supporting sustainable development, viability assessments have become a negotiation tool, resulting in high costs and delays in the planning application process. And ultimately, less affordable housing.
In the midst of a UK housing crisis, this isn’t good enough.
It’s time to rethink viability assessments. London Borough of Southwark kick started this journey, and Connected Places Catapult recognised the urgency of the work as part of their digitising planning programme. They have convened two new partners — The London Borough of Tower Hamlets and The Greater London Authority — to find a better way to evaluate planning viability assessments and negotiate more affordable homes.
Data led negotiation
During our initial Discovery with Southwark, we designed a method that would bring together live datasets and illustrated how the viability assessment process could be improved. By standardising how information is captured, making data more transparent and accessible and streamlining the process, we can build a more level playing field between local authorities and developers.
We’ve recently been working on an alpha with this group of organisations, testing two prototypes from the Discovery phase, looking at the problem through three lenses: data, product and service.
Considering the wider service context, we’ve tested the two prototypes with case officers, viability officers, consultants and developers. We learned that most developers already know the policy and figures provided, which led to prioritising a comparison tool, called the Viability Compare Tool, enabling council officers to:
- search and filter to identify comparable sites using key information
- view detailed information of selected sites side by side for comparison
- sense check submitted figures and proposed levels of affordable housing
The data and functionality of the comparison tool were valuable to users, providing information in a single place for analysis. However, to test which information is a priority and observe how it would be used, the prototype required machine-readable data.
To help answer this need, we developed an automated data extraction pipeline — a scalable, cloud-based approach to identify and extract important data from PDFs and scans of documents.
We’re collaborating with other projects in the planning space, including PlanX in Southwark, and extending the data model they’ve created to incorporate our viability data fields into their master data schema. This means that we’re gradually aligning a common vocabulary around planning concepts, structuring our data in a way to make it easier to link in the future and enable wider innovation in planning using standardised, machine readable data.
The schema can be used to validate data before it’s used by other systems and allows different tools to talk to each other more easily. It’s been created in such a way that it can be extended as and when needs change or new needs arise. Using the schema as a basis, we’ve prototyped what a data collection form would look like, to begin getting this information from developers when it’s really needed.
With this data, council officers are equipped with the insight and support to negotiate higher levels of affordable housing.
The future of viability
Understanding the data requirements and service needs, we’ve constructed a compelling vision for the future state of viability in planning. The focus for the next phase of this work will be on establishing a robust data collection pipeline, ensuring we’re capturing the vital information in the schema both at the point of application and then updating with actual figures when developments are built out. This will maximise the value of the comparison tool, as well as support further innovation on top of this database.
Moving forward, together
What’s truly exciting is when organisations come together to collaborate on a common problem. Working together with our partners, we’ve proved it’s feasible to build something functional with certain sources of data.
There’s more work to be done to understand the different levels of viability expertise amongst planning officers and the differing levels of support that might be required to embed new tools and approaches into their process. Moving this work into the next phase will be a bold and tangible step towards delivering more affordable homes for our communities.