I would wager that any developer, however little or large, has encountered their fair share of headaches when trying to source new sites.
Ultimately, the supply of space in the UK is finite, and in increasingly densely populated and congested cities, finding suitable parcels of undeveloped land to build on can be challenging.
Quite rightly, developers seek out off-market opportunities as well as listed sites, but this hardly solves the problem.
The issue is that the traditional approach to site sourcing has hardly changed in decades.
Developers typically draw up aerial maps of their chosen search area, and proceed to manually inspect the gaps between buildings, at the confluence of several back gardens, and at the edges of existing settlements.
Some developers even walk the streets of their chosen neighbourhood, trying to spot a suitable site from ground level.
Once a viable lot has been identified, the real work can begin. Developers need to know more about the location of their next potential project than just its dimensions – they need to know who owns it, the site’s planning permissions and constraints, the average price paid for nearby properties, and their planning approval ratings.
Without this information, development is impossible; however, getting hold of the information in itself can be both challenging and time-consuming.
For information on title ownership and boundaries, as well as price paid data, developers need to go through Land Registry records.
Then to the local council – or councils, if conducting a wider search – to learn about planning constraints and approval rates.
This fact-finding mission can take hours, even days, and if none of the sites the developer had their eye on turn out to be suitable, then the entire process begins over again.
This approach can be lengthy, frustrating, and for smaller developers with more limited resources to expend on site sourcing, it can be unsustainable. For London-based developers, the city’s extraordinary population density – more than 10 times higher than that of the next most densely population region of England – means there is less empty space in the capital than everywhere else.
This means the traditional methods are even less effective here, and to find space to develop much-needed housing, we must turn to smarter, more effective approaches to meet that demand.
Supporting SME developers
Today things are harder for the UK’s smaller developers than in the past. Our massive development and construction industry, which accounts for an impressive 7% of GDP, is less and less comprised of SME developers.
Back in 1988, two out of every five new homes were built by smaller interests – a ratio that in 2018 had dropped to just 12%.
In the face of an ever-deepening housing crisis, we cannot rely on larger developers alone to generate the properties people need.
The Government has already stated its support for smaller developers, pledging £1 billion to help them reclaim their stake in the market.
Indeed, in 2020 the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said that “small housebuilders are vital to building the homes this country needs”, and he was right. But still more support is needed.
Or, more aptly, more innovation – SME developers must become smarter and more strategic, and site sourcing is the right place to start.
During my years working in the planning and development sector, I saw how site sourcing (whether conducted in-house or through a third party) could be a significant drain on small developers, taking up vital time and money, and often keeping them one step behind their larger competitors.
In time, I recognised that effective site sourcing was ultimately driven not by scale or experience, but by data – what is site sourcing but a form of data gathering and analysis?
While some services were available that compiled the necessary datasets into one resource, membership was often so expensive that smaller developers and architectural firms couldn’t afford them.
The site sourcing process is in need of an update: one that benefits smaller developers and equips them with the tools to be smarter, more agile, and more effective than their competition.
The site sourcing process needs data. After all, virtually every industry is in the throes of some form of data revolution: finance, retail, education, healthcare – why not development, too?
Knowledge is power
As cloud computing, SaaS and big data sweep through the world of work, companies of all sizes and descriptions are expected to process and analyse enormous amounts of data.
Accessing and understanding these datasets empowers them to operate strategically, minimising waste and maximising their outputs, while identifying opportunities that had previously gone under the radar.
Any given neighbourhood may contain quality sites – the challenge is intelligently stripping away the dead ends to find the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Even in the densest areas of London, there are sites that are being overlooked by larger developers.
With all the necessary information in hand, compiled and easy to understand, a list of thousands of sites can be reduced to just a few in a matter of seconds – not days.
Gaining access to the benefits and competitive advantage of data was exactly what SearchLand was built to offer; offering access to the most important, most up-to-date data in an easy-to-use map-based platform for developers of any size.
Becoming data-driven can give smaller developers the edge they need to stay competitive, and we will continue to work with them and help them improve until their place in the market is restored.
Like any system that has stayed largely unchanged since the last millennium, the site sourcing process is in need of modernisation.
And it will be a data-driven change that levels the playing field and improves the entire industry. The tools and technology that smaller developers need to fight their corner are out there – it is up to them to embrace data to make site sourcing more efficient and more effective.