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.


Academics are mapping the legacy of slavery in Britain’s cities

A detail of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map showing central Bristol. Image: LBS/UCL.

For 125 years, a statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston stood in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly to commemorate the philanthropy he’d used his blood money to fund. Then, on 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled it down and threw it into the harbour

The incident has served to shine a light on the benefits Bristol and other British cities reaped from the Atlantic slave trade. Grand houses and public buildings in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond were also funded by the profits made from ferrying enslaved Africans across the ocean. But because the horrors of that trade happened elsewhere, the role it played in building modern Britain is not something we tend to discuss.

Now a team at University College London is trying to change that. The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is mapping every British address linked to a slave-owner. In all, its database contains 5,229 addresses, linked to 5,586 individuals (some addresses are linked to more than one slave owner; some slave owners had more than one home). 

The map is not exact. Streets have often been renumbered; for some individuals, only a city is known, not necessarily an address; and at time of writing, only around 60% of known addresses (3,294 out of 5,229) have been added to the map. But by showing how many addresses it has recorded in each area, it gives some sense of which bits of the UK benefited most from the slave trade; the blue pins, meanwhile, reflect individual addresses, which you can click for more details.

The map shows, for example, that although it’s Glasgow that’s been noisily grappling with this history of late, there were probably actually more slave owners in neighbouring Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish political and financial power.

Liverpool, as an Atlantic port, benefited far more from the trade than any other northern English city.

But the numbers were higher in Bristol and Bath; and much, much higher in and around London.


Other major UK cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – barely appear. Which is not to say they didn’t also benefit from the Triangular Trade (with its iron and weaponry industries, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University said in 2007, “Birmingham armed the slave trade”) – merely that they benefited in a less direct way.

The LBS map, researcher Rachel Lang explained via email, is “a never-ending task – we’re always adding new people to the database and finding out more about them”. Nonetheless, “The map shows broadly what we expected to find... We haven’t focused on specific areas of Britain so I think the addresses we’ve mapped so far are broadly representative.” 

The large number in London, she says, reflect its importance as a financial centre. Where more specific addresses are available, “you can see patterns that reflect the broader social geography”. The high numbers of slave-owners in Bloomsbury, for example, reflects merchants’ desire for property convenient to the City of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the district was being developed. Meanwhile, “there are widows and spinsters with slave property living in suburbs and outlying villages such as Chelsea and Hampstead. Country villas surround London.” 

“What we perhaps didn’t expect to see was that no areas are entirely without slave owners,” Lang adds. “They are everywhere from the Orkney Islands to Penzance. It also revealed clusters in unexpected places – around Inverness and Cromarty, for example, and the Isle of Wight.” No area of Britain was entirely free of links to the slave trade.

 You can explore the map here.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

All images courtesy of LBS/UCL