Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens

Local planning applications: free data, but hard to collate.. until now

We haven’t focussed much on local government so far in this campaign, because it has to be said that many local councils do pretty good work in terms of making data available – possibly because they’ve often, in the past, been required to do so.

Planning applications, for example, are generally available on the web. The problem is finding out whether one in your area will affect you, because if it’s a few streets away you might care about it, but won’t receive a letter telling you about it.

Which drove Richard Pope to write (note you need the “www”, as in the link; the site is just a placeholder). It took him five days over Christmmas, but he reckons the template – which uses a screen scraper – can be applied very widely. So although he’s only got 41 or so councils hooked up, the other 300 or so should be quite easy to add, because there are a limited number of software packages used by councils to put planning data online.

Pope’s idea: you put in your postcode and email, and the site will contact you when something is applied for in your area.

Simple? Yes (by computing standards). Clever? We think so. Could be done by government? Well, it sort of is – except at much more expense, and put into the hands of a commercial company (Emap) which says it retains the copyright on the data it offers through the National Planning Application Register.

In Don’t panic: we’ll email if someone plans to demolish your house, today’s Guardian Technology explains what Pope would like (an API/XML feed from councils that would obviate the need for screen-scraping).

The irony is that government already offers a similar service to search for planning applications through its national planning portal at But rather than five days, it has taken a year to build; it doesn’t send out proactive alerts; and a formidable copyright notice says that the National Planning Application Register is copyright of a commercial company, Emap Glenigan (whose website is used for the searches).

By contrast, Pope hasn’t worried much about copyright: “This information should be available to all.”

We’ve got nothing against Emap Glenigan using the same data that’s widely available – but it’s everyone’s, not Emap’s.

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