Local authorities are tasked with local land-use planning and planning application decisions. In this interview, Richard Kay, Manager of Planning Policy and Environment Lead, East Cambridgeshire District Council, reflects on some of the challenges involved and how data and software might be used to support decision-making.
How well do stakeholders work together to make decisions around land use? For a long time, there was a lot of siloed working. Everyone tried to do their best for their area of responsibility, whether that was town planning, highways planning, farming subsidies and so on. But no-one really thought about what was best for the collective. Recently, I’ve seen a big change. It’s early days, but people from different disciplines have realised they need to properly talk to each other and work together, often motivated by climate and nature recovery objectives. The Environment Act has also helped bring about conversations with developers because of the requirement for developments to provide at least a 10% biodiversity net gain.
What challenges do local authorities face when making planning and land use decisions? Local authorities often have to make decisions around how to best deliver national government policy, such as where to locate new housing or infrastructure requirements. Sometimes it can be hard to reconcile national government policies around house building and environmental goals and understand what the priority is at the local level.
It can also be challenging to collect together all the relevant information to make the most informed decisions, especially at the site specific level. Critical constraints, like avoiding building on a floodplain, are factored in. But it can often be hard to know where exactly the best site is to achieve an environmental goal, like creating a wildflower meadow. I tend to rely on local knowledge, conversations and connections to gather certain information, but this isn’t always comprehensive.
How much do you use tools, like Geospatial Information Systems (GIS), to help inform local land use decisions? Most councils use a basic, free version of GIS, to help with decisions around where new housing should be located, for example. The problem is that different councils use different GIS systems and databases which makes it hard to ‘talk’ to each other and share data. Some councils don’t have the expertise and resources available to use GIS in the most effective way. Having a designated GIS officer is a good start.
What do you think could help support better local decision-making? I think it would be really helpful to have a centralised place for data and information, at least at the county level. This would include up to date, free to access, high quality data, covering things like key nature sites, flood risk, water quality and information about agricultural land. If these and other important considerations were mapped out, it would help local authorities and other stakeholders make quicker and better informed decisions about land use. It would help us shift from asking ‘which location will cause the least harm?’ to ‘which location has the most potential for making the greatest contribution to a particular policy objective?’, whether that’s tree planting, biodiversity, or new housing.