Free Our Data: the blog

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


Could a surcharge on planning applications fund free data from Ordnance Survey?

Since we’re playing with hypothecated taxes – which we should point out is not a central tenet of the Free Our Data campaign; we think governmnent should fund this centrally, but recognise that in tight economic times it’s hard to persuade government to spend more rather than doing revenue-neutral “experiments” – let’s examine the suggestion (made elsewhere) that OS’s free data should be funded by a surcharge on planning applications.

After all, the logic goes, planning applications are voluntary; and they require OS detail. (One has to submit a number of copies of OS maps of the area the application applies to.)

[A disclosure up front: I have a planning application in process. However, the following simply emerges directly from the available statistics.]

Let’s recall the amount that needs to be raised, according to the Cambridge study, to compensate OS for the loss of revenues from selling its “raw” or “public task” data: £12m – £30m.

Now, how many planning applications were there for the UK? For England and Wales, the total applications received looks like this:

This is only for England and Wales, of course, but shows that planning applications, even at their busiest, are an order of magnitude less than Land Registry transactions. True, this excludes Scotland, but even if that has as many planning applications as England and Wales (which seems unlikely), that would only be a total of about 1.3m applications in the busiest time.

That in turn would imply a surcharge per application received of roughly £10 to £30. Whether that’s small or large compared to the cost of the overall transaction (which might be putting up an extension on a house or a change in use, requiring no actual building) isn’t clear.

(Locally, making an application costs between £135 – £265. It may vary in other locations. The surcharge would also have to be collected from multiple councils, which would impose an administrative overhead; by comparison, there’s only one Land Registry.)

But as an actual amount per transaction, it’s comparatively large, meaning it would be very sensitive to variations in the number of applications. The figures there vary from 501,000 to 689,000 – a 28% or 37% variation, depending which you take as your numerator.

Why might this be? Perhaps Land Registry transactions include commercial purchases, which occur more frequently. And also that people buy and sell houses more frequently than they do things to them. Either way, it’s doesn’t look like the optimum way forward. It’s certainly a lot more expensive – per transaction – than a Land Reggistry surcharge.

Year or Quarter

Planning
applications
received (,000)

1997/98

505

1998/99

501

1999/00

521

2000/01

545

2001/02

582

2002/03

635

2003/04

674

2004/05

689

2005/06

645

2006/07*

644

* provisional. Source: DCLG
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