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Housing, energy and environmental crisis - a place for geolocation technology

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth May 23, 2023
Local government, energy and insurance firms are turning to geolocation data to resolve the UK’s chronic housing crisis, energy inflation and the climate emergency

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(Image by Andrey_Photos from Pixabay)

You are tasked with building more houses - and at the same time making the existing housing stock carbon neutral as the nation transitions off fossil fuel energy. No simple task and one that the UK’s local government and the property sector must reach by 2050. 

To meet these two challenges, both sectors are adopting geolocation technology. Speakers at the recent GeoPlace Annual Conference revealed that geolocation data is creating opportunities for data sharing, digitization and accurate planning for housing, energy transition and responding to the climate emergency.  

Housing costs in the UK are 10 times the average salary, and vacancy rates of properties are below one per cent. When compared to other European countries, the UK has the largest house-building backlog in the continent, according to the Centre for Cities think tank. Meanwhile, a study by Imperial College London found that 2013-14 floods, which were the result of the climate emergency, cost the UK economy £450 million in insured losses alone. 

Creating a new landscape

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has national responsibility for tackling the UK’s housing shortage, policy and funding for local authorities. As a result, the department regularly offers digitization funding programmes and initiatives to modernize housing, planning and local government. Lawrence Hopper, Deputy Director of Digital Products at DLUHC, says of the challenge to new housing: 

Just 7% of people expect a development to be favorable to them.

He, therefore, believes digitization can improve the dialogue between local government, citizens and property developers. He says: 

Location data enables you to understand the property lifecycle, improve the quality of the build and make it easier for people to design and build the properties we need.  

At present, developers or those seeking planning permission don’t have a good digital experience of accessing information, he says: 

We have lots of rich text information locked away in PDFs. Local Plans are fantastically rich documents that shape a community but are often hard to find. So we have to replace legacy systems to unlock the potential of location data, as we often have what I call online, but not digital.

We have been working with local authorities to make Local Plans machine readable using UPRN (Unique Property Reference Number). We have to replace legacy systems to unlock the potential of location data. The lack of precision and the need to rekey data leads to risks and then a lack of intelligent decision making.

Local Plans, which can often be contentious documents that are used as political brick-bats in local elections, have to be created by a local authority and its councillors to define how the development of housing and infrastructure could benefit the region. Hopper says of working with property technology firms and local government: 

It is about creating feedback loops as much as it is about growth and productivity. DLUHC has been working with the property technology sector and local authorities to increase digital engagement with polls, and making information available is so important to create engagement. 

Many of the policy issues that the department is dealing with are long-standing and seen as intractable, whether it is home buying and selling or social housing; these are areas in real need of reform.

House numbers

Launched in 2020, UPRNs are mandated by the Government Digital Service (GDS) as the standard for public sector referencing and sharing of property and street information. They are managed by GeoPlace, a joint venture between the Local Government Association and Ordnance Survey (and conference hosts). In adopting UPRNs, the public sector hopes to simplify and digitise property information; Jenny Danson of the Disruptive Innovators Network, an association for social housing, says: 

Housing is made up of a lot of databases, and the UPRN is that common identifier and a qualified reference point, and in my experience, there are often mistakes in other data sets. UPRN creates one view of a property. It has really helped with our data quality issues.

Local government is not alone in making information more accessible, as Adam Bain explains: 

Data is enabling us to manage our network more efficiently, and we can make the network work differently from how it was built in the 1940s. We have set out that our business will be more flexible, so we are increasing our open data.

Bain is Whole System Development Manager at Scottish & Southern Electricity Networks, an electricity transmission provider in, as the name suggests, Scotland and the south of England. Making its data more accessible enables Scottish & Southern Electricity Networks customers to be better informed. Developers and local governments can use the open data to assess the energy demands and impacts of a development proposal. Open data and a publicly available strategy backed up by geolocation-powered visualization tools enable outage tracking for customers or for developers and planners to view load consumption. Bain says: 

We are working with local authorities to inform decision-making. We have developed a tool with a 3D landscape so they can make decisions on solar energy, electric vehicle (EV) charging and heat pump locations. That can highlight if there are restraints in the network. A developer can see what substations can support an EV charging point, making the whole process much quicker.

Bain adds that usage of these tools then feeds back into Scottish & Southern Electricity Networks and ensures the business directs its infrastructure investment towards where there will be demand for new housing and EV charging. Geolocation data adds insights into flood risks and the impact this can have on infrastructure. 

Scottish & Southern Electricity Networks is not the only organization seeing an impact on the shift away from fossil fuel-powered vehicles; Jo Wall, Senior Strategy Director at Local Partnerships LLP, an HM Treasury-owned organization that supports local authorities, says vehicle registration data is an important form of geolocation data, as it informs the public sector of where EVs are being registered. 

Emergency response

The floods of 2013 - 2014 have been followed by a series of weather events, ranging from drought to high winds, all of which have disrupted communities and businesses. Insurance firm Royal Sun Alliance (RSA) has a Head of GeoRisk, Katie Ward, whose day job is to manage the firm’s Peril models using geolocation technology, she says. 

During Storm Unis in 2022, we monitored the 122 mph winds event before and during the event and rather than use static maps, we created interactive apps for our teams.

Impressive technology and strategic nouse, but an example of the additional cost to businesses that the climate emergency is having. This will eventually be passed on to the customer and add to the cost of living crisis and inflation. 

Wall says climate emergency incidents will increase the need for the sector to use geolocation technology: 

Data is going to be key as we have to act at scale and pace. We are looking at a two-degree increase in world temperatures, and that is a catastrophic change. We are already seeing some really developed datasets from the Environment Agency and the Met Office for providing localised climate impact data. We will then look at vulnerable people and what we need to consider for ambulance provision, for example.

Planning for that eventuality is already taking place. In London, the local authorities responsible for the boroughs of Lambeth and Hounslow are using geolocation technology to better understand how they and their residents will have to respond to the climate emergency. The Carbon Trust, an environmental services organization, found that Lambeth produces 815,000 tonnes of CO2 a year, over half of which is generated by buildings in the borough. Will Rivers, Senior Manager, Programmes & Innovation at The Carbon Trust, worked with Lambeth to model the buildings in its region to create a better understanding of how to transition these buildings to non-carbon energy sources. He says: 

We needed to develop a detailed analysis of the building stock, so we mapped the usage of gas for heating, the wall types and insulation. This was overlaid with ownership information. The resulting database has helped us understand the patchwork of building ownership.

Now Lambeth is able to plan for the large number of flats it has that are former terrace homes, as well as plan for heat networks - a distributed heating system that can support a number of dwellings. Lambeth has categorized its building stock into 32 types, 18 of which are domestic, this will inform retro-fitting building in terms of heritage value, tenure and funding options. Rivers says: 

Ambient heat networks came out as the best option for high-rise housing, for example.

At Hounslow, a similar programme enabled the borough council to respond to the current energy crisis as high fuel prices and rocketing inflation hit its residents. Dr Simon Hayes, Information Analyst, London Borough of Hounslow, created four scenarios based on income data and the energy performance certificates (EPC); he says this: 

Categorizing the households was really important as the council then knew it could provide financial help or just information, and this has helped with the council’s resources.

The same data informed the Hounslow warm spaces initiative, as these were set up where they would make a difference. 

My take

Housing and planning is, in fact, a disconnected and fragmented landscape. Whether in the UK’s cities or rural communities, planning and homes are contentious, and residents can often feel processes are, at best opaque. Dealing with the climate emergency is rapidly becoming a series of disconnected islands that, like planning, never seem to be able to build bridges to one another and deal with the biggest problem facing society.

Data and geolocation tech can provide the foundations for building sustainable homes, connected communities and a network effect of buildings that create as well as consume energy. The GeoPlace Annual Conference revealed that the foundations exist and that areas of the property, public, energy and financial services sectors are using this technology. However, the scale of the UK’s housing problem and the climate emergency show many more organisations need to map their way to using geolocation technology. 

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