PropTech has already revolutionised the way we buy, sell and rent homes through sites like Rightmove and Zoopla. Ed Socha of international law firm Osborne Clarke explores how technology such as virtual reality, drones and blockchain could transform the way we unlock land for much-needed housing
The housing shortage in the UK remains acute. It is generally agreed that the UK needs to build 250,000 new homes each year in order to keep pace with demand. Site location, and bringing sites through to market, will play a crucial role in meeting this target. At the same time, competition for land is fierce, the planning system can be slow and unhelpful and nimbyism often prevails.
For those operating in the strategic land sector, PropTech could be a counter to some of these difficulties. The technologies being developed offer a potential advantage over competitors, can bring efficiencies and, most importantly, may provide the tools required to unlock land.
We take a look at three parts of the strategic land life cycle: site location; planning; and land transfers, which are all likely to be transformed by the PropTech revolution.
Finding suitable sites for development is a key objective for developers. It can be a time-consuming process and, although some will have their own in-house software, a number of site analytics tools have been developed to make site location more efficient. For example:
- Land Insight aims to be a one-stop-shop for site location and assessment. Its map-based search function provides 3D views, satellite imagery, OS mapping and online measuring tools, which it combines with information on use types and planning history.
- Space Syntax provides spatial analytics to map human interaction with the built environment. This allows people to make better-informed decisions about planning and the future development of urban areas.
- Statebook (a US web application) provides data on demographics, taxes, utility costs and quality of life. This information can be harnessed by developers to compare sites and to make informed decisions about the correct housing types. Although there is currently no direct UK equivalent, it is likely to be only a matter of time before one emerges.
These tools show how data can now be collated faster and more efficiently, not only to locate sites, but to support planning applications as well.
Site location is also likely to benefit from the explosion of drone technology. Once land has been identified, sooner or later, it will be necessary to survey that land. It is here that drones can add value. For instance, when a topographical site survey requires GPS points to be taken, this can be completed much more quickly with aerial assistance. Unsurprisingly, the use of drone technology is expected to become a common feature of the site surveying process.
The planning process
The planning process can be fraught with difficulties and the battle for hearts and minds, through community consultation, is often the toughest challenge. Yet it is the most important factor in achieving success. It is for this reason that, for strategic land, virtual reality could be the most important development to emerge from the PropTech revolution.
Virtual reality can be used to demonstrate what a development will look like before a spade has even been put in the ground. A virtual development can be “built” to show what a residential-led development, with its associated community benefits, will look like.
This will genuinely bring ‘placemaking’ to life. It will be capable of providing planners, as well as local residents, with a real feel for a development. Planners can examine how residents would interact with the green space, transport infrastructure and layout of the proposed scheme.
Virtual reality has already been used in Richmond as part of a planning application to build an extension to a gothic church and it unlikely to be long until it becomes widely used in planning applications.
Blockchain is, it appears, likely to become part of the fabric of land registries. In short, blockchain technology can provide a digital registry that is almost impossible to tamper with. This, coupled with the possibility that transactions will be able to take place in real time, means it is being widely considered.
Blockchain is not just being discussed, though. HM Land Registry is looking at using blockchain in order to become the world’s leading land registry for speed and simplicity. In fact, the Land Registry is planning to trial a digital street that will allow property transactions to take place almost instantaneously.
However, this is not new and nor is England and Wales the first to consider blockchain for land registration. Georgia has already agreed to use blockchain to validate all government-related property transactions and Sweden and Ukraine are also incepting blockchain technology for land registration. The question is likely to be when, not if, blockchain becomes adopted by HM Land Registry.
The message is clear: PropTech is here to stay – and is only going to become more important. It is likely to influence strategic land from site location to sale and, although we may be at the early stages of the PropTech revolution, developers are already using PropTech to their benefit.
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