Guest post: Surrey County Council on making property planning more accessible

When Robert Steele, Digital Platform Manager for Data Publication at Surrey County Council and a co-founder of Surrey Digital Services, struggled to access his own local property planning information, he decided to do something about it


Construction site. CC BY 2.0, uploaded by [Elliot Brown]( “Elliot Brown").

A couple of years ago I moved house into what I thought was going to be a nice, peaceful place. But, little did I know that a new housing estate was due to envelop the village with between 650-2250 extra houses. Why had I not heard about it? Unless you live adjacent to the land, poke around nearby lamp posts for notices, scour the local papers or regularly search through thousands of online planning records, then you’re not going to find out.

Hang on though, I work in Local Government, so should be able to do something about this, right? As it happened, the Open Data User Group, Local Government Association and others had also recognised the value of planning data to society, so we all got publishing. In Surrey we created the Planning Hub with BIS Breakthrough Funding, to expose live data covering 12 councils via an API or to view on an embeddable map.

Although it’s a good start (and helping residents in situations like mine), it doesn’t allow the full exploitation of this valuable data as it is still classed as derived data by Ordnance Survey (OS). Essentially, this denies any commercial use of the data.

The 'transaction cost' created by complex licensing and derived data rights costs the public sector time and money. Time and money that could be spent building better public services. We simply want to publish planning data – information about what is going on, when and where – so anyone can see and use it for any purpose. At the moment we are being told that we can't release this information because the detailed data within it – such as addresses and map coordinates – create a substantial risk to OS commercial operations.

Planning is a popular and important topic that impacts the whole country from society to business to public services. We’ve got smart cities, a housing crisis, government digital transformation, a data revolution, loss of greenfield land, land-grabbing by large developers, massive flooding problems and the most advanced open data movement in the world. Surely we ought to be using data to help bring transparency, innovation and ultimately solutions to some of these issues. At the moment, though, our planning data is locked up behind restrictive licensing.

How you can help

We at Surrey Council would like to know what you think are the potential benefits releasing planning application data as full open data (ie with an Open Government Licence).

We’ve setup a survey where we’d like to hear from anyone with usage ideas for this data. The more we can get, the more comprehensive a case we can put together to lobby for the release of this data. Feel free to play with the Surrey Planning Hub or an individual authority feed to get an idea about the data.

Robert Steele is the Digital Platform Manager for Data Publication at Surrey County Council and a co-founder of Surrey Digital Services, a coalition approach to public sector data services. You can contact him on [email protected] or 0208 213 2823.