A cityscape of Manchester at night.

A Clearer Blog Post

Normally I work out loud. That means sharing things on twitter, my blog, and via facebook and ODILeeds. It helps me to learn from other people, and help other people learn. We get more done that way and across North England’s large cities it’s essential to sustaining professional networks.

But for the past few months we’ve been busy on a project that I’ve hardly shared at all, until now.


We’re trying to improve planning, as part of a large project on The Future of Planning led by The Future Cities Catapult . Our product is called A Clearer Plan and for the moment I’m only sharing screenshots. But the thing works, I promise you, and it's fast — much faster than you might be used to.

I’ve been interested in planning for a long time. Whether it’s transport, housing, workplaces, or whatever, I’ve gone to meetings, filled in consultation responses, and worked hard to get more data open, and make use of it once it is. We’re doing a pretty good job in Leeds; the only large city where people earn more than they pay in extra rent for the privelege , one of few fast-growing cities to build enough to keep housing affordable , and most importantly for this project, the only city that’s reliably publishing open data on housing land supply and empty homes by ward .

And yet when I’m listening to people talk about planning, or reading their submissions, whether it’s from individual citizens, community groups, or even small developers, they’re almost never using the data that’s available to them. This is hugely frustrating. With local government planning budgets being cut we need to be freeing up planners to take into account useful opinions, not making them respond to poor submissions.

So I’ve built a tool that pulls together a lot of the data that we have, in a way that I hope will help people inform their opinions, comments, and planning submissions. It presents data on buses, local incomes, green space, current land allocations, allotments, flood risk, and more. Soon it will have data on schools, doctors, housing needs, and more. These are all things that I’ve seen missing or wrong in consultation responses and plans.

Flooding and a flood of applications

Soon you’ll be able to investigate where you live in Leeds and understand the context for planning decisions. Unsurprisingly, given what happened in 2015 , one of the most common requests we get for data on planning is flood risk. At ODILeeds’ Defra Data event I even found out and wrote up how flood modelling works to create flood risk maps.

So let me show you how exploring the development of a new shopping area and whether that clashes with known flood risk works in A Clearer Plan.

You go to a place on the map, you select flood risk, you select retail, and it tells you that they overlap. It’s that simple. And it’s just as simple for bus routes, green space, housing demand, local affordability of housing, and school places.

In my dream world no-one complains about flood risk, where this is none. No-one complains about school places, when there is spare capacity, no-one complains about unaffordable homes when all the homes are affordable, and planners are freed to listen to useful suggestions that create the villages, towns, and cities that more of us want to live in, and that more of us had a role in creating. We won't achieve that with this tool, but I hope that we take a small step in that direction.

PDFs for planners

But this isn’t all we’ve been doing. In the next blog post about the Future of Planning I’ll explain the next part of our product and how it turns data into the basis for consultation responses, local plans, and planning applications. It relies on the work that I’m doing at ODILeeds with Adobe on open data and PDFs and I think that it might be the missing link between the data that increasingly powers our lives, and the local government processes that we need to modernise.

But more on that next time.

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