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A bureaucratic burden, but brownfield registers have untapped potential

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

Administration is not often glamorous and it can be a laborious task at times.

That is certainly true of brownfield land registers which, thanks to the Housing and Planning Act 2016, became a legal requirement for all councils to produce by the end of last year.

The registers, when curated well, create an accessible database of building opportunities and can be an incredibly useful tool, especially for smaller and medium sized housebuilders.

Yet many of these registers have not been curated well – LGC can attest to this having painstakingly collated data from the registers published by almost every council England.

Councils were required by law to publish their brownfield land registers in a set format by 31 December last year. Councils were asked to publish a CSV file with specific titles for each column, yet this requirement was widely ignored.

Ultimately, the process of finding and importing the data in individual registers became so complex that it had to be completed manually. One computer scientist called the first attempt by councils at completing these brownfield registers the “dirtiest dataset” he had ever seen.

So what could be done better? One answer could lie in a project by the Government Digital Service to make local election results more open and standardised.

According to the GDS, many authorities have historically uploaded voter data in disparate, hard-to-read file formats which are “poor for accessibility and for open data”.

For May’s local elections the GDS has given councils a schema (or structured database) and a centralised submission system for uploading results. Applying lessons from this project could help planning departments and the government save time, money and resource in compiling brownfield registers nationally.

But there is a wider issue at play here too.

Daryl Phillips, who is Hart DC’s chief executive and District Councils’ Network lead spokesman for planning, said: “Brownfield registers were brought through by statute so local authorities have done what the law says without thinking what’s behind it.”

Instead of being a useful, detailed database some registers only include rough estimates about the number of homes that could be built on a large number of sites in an area.

But doing that means the resource becomes less valuable to prospective developers, especially the small and medium sized builders who both councils and the government are keen to make more use of. 

Professor Mohammed Arif, head of architecture and built environment and professor of sustainability and construction futures at the University of Wolverhampton, told LGC councils should see their brownfield registers as an “opportunity, not a liability”.

That can be easier said than done. Hopefully confirmation of a 20% uplift in the fees councils can charge for planning applications will help bolster teams and enable brownfield registers to become a far more useful resource as opposed to a bureaucratic burden.

By Robert Cusack, reporter

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