Residential development has been through a sea change over the past decade. Updates to the planning system and shifting attitudes on where people want to live have led to the introduction of new players and new investors, as well as new technologies.
One example of this is LandTech, a proptech company providing a range of web services that aim to make data sources such as Land Registry and local planning committee data accessible. Jonny Britton, co-founder and CEO of LandTech, sat down with Property Week news editor Mitchell Labiak to discuss the issues facing the sector.
Mitchell Labiak: How have things changed for residential developers in recent years?
Jonny Britton: There have been a huge number of changes in particular over the past couple of years. There are changes in the way people might want to live and this is happening across the world. In the UK, we see people maybe trying to move out of cities and get a bit more space. People can work from home now, so do they need to go into the office as often and can they live a bit further from their workplace?
In the US, we’ve seen these trends already. For example, people are moving out of California for tax incentives into the Sun Belt states [the southern and southwestern parts of the country]. A population the size of Manchester moves to Florida every year. Through the pandemic, that accelerated by a huge amount.
Planning has changed too. At the centre of the property development industry is the planning system and what is permitted under planning has been loosened a huge amount over the past couple of years. We’ve seen B1 (office) to C3 (residential) permitted development, we’ve seen airspace permitted development and there’s talk of introducing zoning as well. All this is radical reform. From a global perspective, there is a potential for the UK to be quite dynamic and make sweeping reforms.
Watch the full interview here:
ML: Is the loosening of planning restrictions something that is happening globally – and is it a good thing?
JB: I couldn’t speak for the whole world but in the US, it gets loosened at a local level. It’s not a national system. The way they implement zoning is interpreted differently by different states. It’s an interesting system, because it’s quite democratic. In places like Minneapolis, there is a YIMBY – Yes In My Back Yard – movement. They are really pushing for change at a state level. That gets the attention of the federal government and they push the federal government to do more. So, you see a different implementation and a different way of the system being loosened.
ML: What are planning systems like in other countries compared with the UK?
JB: In the US, Australia and a lot of places around Europe, you have an up-front process of engagement and then the rules are set. The plans are laid out and there’s a bit more predictability, in theory, about what can be done. Over here, we have council-wide set policies in five-year plans, planning applications go in against that and from that point on it becomes quite a precedent-based system.
What you see in practice is that the rules of the game are different. Where you have a zoning system, it’s supposed to be predictable, but it doesn’t work because times change, technology moves on, the population changes and inward migration happens. People then need to rezone an area or they need zoning variants. This then varies the zoning system and it sets a new precedent, which is like how it is in the UK.
It’s interesting that we look to other systems for how we can make planning more predictable, but that other countries look to the UK for how a planning system can be more dynamic.
ML: What can be done to help developers to deliver more housing?
JB: It’s a huge question. The World Economic Forum has said that 90% of the top 200 biggest cities have a housing crisis. There are no simple solutions. If there were, I’m sure they would have been brought over and implemented. You also can’t just tweak things and expect radical things to happen. Our company’s view is that it’s not just about volume of supply. It’s about the right homes being built in the right places for the right people. If you live in a really nice place where you feel safe and connected, but you didn’t have the best home, you probably feel okay about things. But if you flip that around and you live in a really nice home, but you step outside and feel unsafe, can’t easily get to work and access local amenities, are you going to feel as happy?
It’s more about the place. We enable better placemaking. We work with property developers who are building the kinds of places that communities need. We’re trying to engage more with communities to get lots of information about what they need to make sure developers are more informed when they’re making places. This is done through democratisation of data, which we’ve turned into tools used to make things faster, smarter and easier to collaborate with.
I get accused of saying technology can solve all problems, but I kind of believe it’s true. It’s not so straightforward, because you can’t always see it coming, but some things really break through and when they do so, they make radical changes in a way people didn’t expect.
ML: Could these kinds of tools work on a global scale? And to what extent can or should proptech translate from one country to another?
JB: There’s no right or wrong answer. Technology can be exponential. It can go global. Imagine an interface and on that interface is some data. That could be zoning data or planning policy. Imagine that the interface can handle the planning data and that changes based on where you are. In the background, there’s an enormous amount of variation. You have to normalise all that. The wider area of geography you go to, the more standardisation complexity kicks in. And the more different sources of data that there are, the more difficult it becomes.
But we’re living in an age where there’s extremely powerful storage, processing power and affordable, online, cloud-based systems that can help you when you’re tackling massive data problems such as this. Machine learning is the main one, and it comes in lots of different shapes and formats.
We are deploying that. We’ve gathered the planning documents from all the 350-odd local planning authorities and made that into one single database where they can all be read and interpreted. Then we deploy our machine learning so we can interpret this information, so from the user’s perspective, you could be at any council in the land and the information would be the same on your screen.
Scaling that up across the world is a massive technical challenge, but it’s one where we have world-leading expertise in being one of the only companies that have ever done this.
ML: What does the future look like for residential development?
JB: I don’t want to be seen as an evangelist purely for technology, but I think it has a role to play here. Twenty years ago, if you had asked me that question, I would have referred to macroeconomic changes to fuel the economy, changes to lending or to the planning system. A technologist will look at the users of a system and build tools for those users. We build tools for property professionals. We think about their daily challenges and how we can make their lives easier and more efficient.
We know how effective this is. We have the product knowledge and the data to prove that it works. I think developers will have a better toolkit to work with in future. All of their pieces of work from site finding to assessment; from building teams and finding the right partners for those teams; to getting right planning application in place and communicating about that with the council; from getting appraisals done to unlocking the land – for all of that, they will have a toolkit that is cohesive and works for them.