DCLG is about to launch its Brownfield Land Register. Here’s why that matters

Some brownfield, before a green field. Image: Getty.

In January 2018 something exciting is happening in the world of property and development. The Brownfield Land Register, recently launched by the Department for Communities and Local Government, will be ready to use.

Don’t be put off by that sentence: this really is big news and is the first major step in unlocking the value of land data for the planning system. Here’s why.

Why brownfield land?

As the UK housing crisis continues, the government is under pressure to identify suitable land, which is often scarce, for the thousands of new homes needed across the country. Brownfield sites – often disused, former industrial land – offer that rarest of things: development opportunities within the boundaries of a city that can make better use of urban space. But as every prospective developer will know, a high degree of site analysis is needed to make an informed purchase.

So how can local authorities turn their brownfield sites into attractive propositions for prospective buyers? The answer is data, and lots of it.

Collecting information on brownfield land is nothing new; most local planning authorities do it. But the question is, how can we make the most of the data that already exists? Everyone organises this data in a slightly different way, meaning a national picture of how much brownfield land is available for development, and where, is pretty muddled.

Enter the new year, and the Brownfield Land Register. This new Register will create consistency for the first time, in how Local Planning Authorities report Brownfield Land giving a clear set of standards for the collection of data. The aggregated datasets will be made open on data.gov.uk and LG inform and allow DCLG and others to build this national map.

Benefits to Planners

For local planners, the immediate benefit of re-entering information into a new template may be hard to see, but it will have a big impact on how they assess land in the future. Not only will it help shift everyone towards a geospatial view of brownfield sites, providing a national and comparable map of development land – It will also create a market for innovative SMEs and tech companies. These young, high growth businesses can use the data as the basis to design new tools, services and analytics which could be rolled out to multiple local authorities and scaled across the market.

In our Future of Planning open call, Future Cities Catapult supported nine initiatives to prototype new solutions to design a data-driven and digitally enabled planning system. One tool, developed by ODI Leeds, shows how (standardised) open data can be used to give citizens and amateur developers the data needed to develop a planning application – or oppose one. It’s simple tools like this that can shake up the system by reducing head-scratching from citizens navigating the maze of planning applications, and the need for planners to repeatedly commission similar work from the same consultants year after year. It would also give local authorities greater control over their planning data and city data models.

Another major opportunity is streamlining the Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment (SHLAA), which is how land is identified and prioritised for development. Currently this relies on people submitting pieces of land, which are then sifted manually and labouriously. Standardised data for all land (and planning policy) would allow new digital services to help with this.

Setting a new precedent

Mark Prisk MP, previous chair for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smart Cities, recently shared his thoughts on the benefits of opening up land data. Speaking at one of our Third Thursday networking events, he said that “instead of being controlled by a small group of individuals as owners and producers, open digital land data will open up a whole raft of opportunities both for individuals, businesses and neighbourhoods in order to make better use of their immediate surroundings”. Here at Future Cities Catapult, we see accessible data from the Land Registry, Ordnance Survey and Valuation Office Agency – underpinned by government support – as vital to the development of the ‘PlanTech’ market.

The Brownfield Land Register is a first step towards a digital land register and sets a precedent for data standardisation in planning. It’s the first example of a government-mandated standard for planning data, and can pave the way for consistency in other land data. We’ll be closely monitoring progress as part of our work on the Future of Planning and City Standards in the time ahead.

Matthew Wood-Hill is city standards coordinator at the Future Cities Catapult.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.