The Oxford-Cambridge Arc is the area between Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge. It supports over two million jobs for local communities and adds over £110 billion GVA to the economy every year as one of the fastest-growing economies in England. The Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has recognised the area as a “globally significant place that has the potential to become even greater”. Over the next 30+ years, they’ll be focusing on the area’s growth and how they can work with communities and local partners on its development.
In February 2021, the Government published a policy paper setting out the ambition to support sustainable economic growth in the Arc, and how the Government intends to develop a Spatial Framework to help realise that ambition.
We’ve been supporting MHCLG through a data discovery to realise their ambition for utilising data and digital tools to develop the Spatial Framework for the Arc. The focus was on the ‘evidence base’ documents and their foundational data, that are required to support spatial planning such as the OxCam Spatial Framework (a long-term strategic plan to help coordinate the infrastructure, environment and new developments in the area and the local plans of councils). How might we make the data more accessible and re-usable?
One of the biggest challenges in identifying the data most needed to develop the Arc is the volume and diversity of data that’s currently available. Throughout the discovery we wanted to simplify this and find out:
what data is most useful for important stakeholders in planning across the Arc
what the barriers are to using that data and turning it into valuable insights
what the opportunities are for improvement
To understand the different types of user needs we ran a mixture of user research, workshops and desktop research with local authorities, central government, developers and utility companies.
Core planning data findings
Central Government departments and agencies produce data that’s always necessary in local plans. However, it’s not always up to date and it’s stored in a variety of different formats and places.
Planners need this data to help them to understand development opportunities and the need for supporting infrastructure. Yet, because this data isn’t currently published in one place, there can be a significant cost–both time and resources–to getting accurate information.
As users, council staff have issues around the licensing and intellectual property of data, which often causes a block to collaboration across departments. Local authorities spend a lot of money on third parties to help them collect this primary data. Companies are also commissioned to provide novel data sets and analysis, as local authorities don’t feel they have the resource or skillset in-house to make the same complex calculations a consultancy can.
Data needs spectrum
We categorised these different needs into a simple spectrum that included basic data needs, data that’s needed to create the foundation for the local plan. Data methods and forecasts, the way data should be processed to produce insights and advanced data needs, data that’s needed to generate new insights into more complex, longer-term challenges.
We identified basic data needs through interviews with users, analysing survey data and a rapid desk review of frequently used evidence base documents. As a high priority for the development of the Spatial Framework for the OxCam Arc, users identified the following as priority datasets:
economy/employment: employment forecasts, GVA forecasts and income and productivity
infrastructure: list of transport and utility projects and mapping of flood zone risks
housing: household demographic & financial profiles and population forecasts
environment: strategic land parcels and general areas
We identified the more advanced data needs in a workshop, addressing what data was most needed to make significant strategic and/or investment decisions. These included:
rates of delivery of housing developments
current & future capacity of utility infrastructure
current site allocations and site developments that might come forward in the medium to longer-term
Our user research helped us begin to prioritise which of the mammoth number of datasets used in planning were a priority to be made more consistent and accessible. However, broader issues relating to trust in the data were also surfaced, which cannot be solved by standardised and open data alone. We developed three potential services to be tested at Alpha to address some of the data issues.
Open evidence production
Our user research suggested that evidence base data was produced in an opaque, inconsistent manner, with this being a barrier to trust and re-use of data. Creating consistency in how evidence base documents are designed, commissioned and published should increase trust and reusability of data; a hypothesis to test in Alpha. By designing a service for the way in which evidence base studies are designed, commissioned, created and published, data and methodological standards will be made explicit along the journey.