OR/17/005 The importance of increasing the impact of NERC (BGS) data and research to cities

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Bonsor, H C. 2017. Integrating NERC (BGS) subsurface research and data to city development processes and policy (NERC briefing note). British Geological Survey Open Report, OR/17/005.
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Largely unregulated and unplanned in the UK, as in many other parts of the world, the ground beneath cities is increasingly recognised by local governments as a key asset to unlocking key city development challenges. New integrated above and below ground spatial planning approaches are essential for LG to be able to utilise land assets to greatest effect to stimulate most appropriate city development and investment, to deliver required housing and infrastructure, and develop cities to be more resilient and sustainable places with connected communities of greater well‐being.

Development of these new place‐based solutions requires greater, high quality, strategic knowledge of the subsurface to be front‐loaded to local development processes and policy.

The need for greater, higher quality, strategic knowledge to be front‐loaded to local development planning in order to deliver new place‐based solutions for required city development is identified by current national planning reform for housing and infrastructure, and the UK government Homes and Communities Agency (UK Government 2015[1]; Scottish Government 2016[2]). NERC (BGS) subsurface data is recognised as a key component part of this strategic knowledge (Scottish Government 2016[2]) required by LG within early strategic decisions of city development approaches and planning policy. Earlier understanding of likely ground conditions and subsurface resource opportunities (underground building space, renewable energy, sustainable drainage) through increased use of relevant NERC (BGS) information to inform LDP policy could enable LG’s to designate and utilise land assets more effectively from the outset, which would cascade significant downstream benefit right through the development process, and help increase the efficiency of planning, and mitigate and de‐risk later construction costs for both LG’s and private developers. Unlocking and de‐risking key tracts of vacant and derelict land in cities, for example, represents a key barrier and challenge for many local governments to delivering wider transformational development as well as immediate housing and infrastructure.

Indeed, LG’s aspire to make much greater utilisation of NERC (BGS) and other UK research council (RCUK) organisations research to inform new development approaches and increased evidence‐ based policy, to enable earlier and more effective intervention of development risks for better outcomes, and appropriate investment (GCC 2011[3]). These aspirations follow the broader national visions for increased data accessibility and wider exploitation of spatial data to inform public services and policy, and increased business intelligence, as set out by the digital public services strategy by the Scottish Government Information Sharing and Spatial Information boards (Scottish Government 2012[4]; Morgan 2014[5]) as well as research and innovate UK investment in initiatives of the Future Cities Catapult and SMART cities. In Scotland, the Scottish Government pays for several key environmental datasets, developed and licenced by NERC(BGS) to be freely available to LG’s for decision making processes, under the Scottish Government Agreement (2015). However, awareness of these data, is incomplete across relevant service teams in LG, and there is limited and non‐systematic use of the data.

This is symptomatic of the limited awareness or utilisation of existing relevant NERC (BGS) within early‐stage of city development planning and LDP policy. There are key knowledge gaps within both NERC(BGS) and LG planning teams as to how to most appropriately and effectively bridge this knowledge gap — which roles and processes are most relevant to connect in organisations — and what delivery of relevant NERC (BGS) data is most accessible to LG development planning and policy. New relationships and conversations between NERC and LG organisations and data centres are required to achieve this.

Current utilisation of NERC (BGS) data within LG across the development process[edit]

Work with GCC and other local authorities highlights a strong disparity in the awareness and utilisation of NERC (BGS) data within LG at different stages of the development process — Figure 1. Awareness and utilisation of NERC (BGS) data and research is relatively high within geotechnical and environmental service teams in LG and it is used substantially to inform design and construction programmes towards the end of the development process. In stark contrast, awareness and utilisation of relevant NERC (BGS) data is almost completely absent within early strategic decisions of the development process, by LG development planning and policy. The city of Glasgow has, for example, the most comprehensive NERC (BGS) urban geoscience model in the UK, as well as applied 2D datasets developed to support urban planning approaches, yet none are used to inform strategic development approaches or policy.

Figure 1    Awareness, understanding and utilisation of NERC data and research is relatively good at project‐scale decisions and workflow processes, but almost completely absence at strategic levels.

Several factors underpin this key disconnect within strategic levels of the LG development process and development planning and policy. Fundamentally, the disconnect is a manifestation of the historical relationship between BGS and LG’s, where the organisations have traditionally interacted in the design and delivery of specific projects (the end‐stage of the city development process) and communication has largely been between geologists and geotechnical specialists. This has contributed to the different awareness in LG between early‐stage policy teams and later‐stage design teams of the existing, relevant NERC (BGS) data and information, as well as the relatively limited understanding within NERC (BGS) of what early‐stage strategic decisions local governments are required to make to deliver investment and infrastructure and therein what is the most appropriate and relevant delivery of strategic subsurface knowledgeto inform policy. These points are discussed in more detail below.

Historically there have been long‐standing relationships between BGS and geotechnical and environmental service teams in LG (e.g. contaminated land officers, geotechnical engineers, and environmental health officers). Significant investment has been expended by NERC (BGS) in data acquisition and to develop relevant regional datasets of subsurface environment and ground conditions for these service teams within LG. Formerly, this relationship was maintained by Regional BGS geologists who formed an ongoing point of contact with LG’s. In more recent years the relationship between the NERC (BGS) and LG organisations has been increasingly developed/tied to individual projects and between individual BGS geoscientists and relevant subsurface specialists within the geotechnical and environmental service teams (e.g. contaminated land officers, geotechnical engineers, environmental health officers). As a result of the past and present relationships between the organisations, there is a relatively high awareness and utilisation of existing NERC(BGS) data geotechnical and environmental LG service teams — comparable to that by the insurance industry, or by private sector geotechnical consultancies leading site investigation, remediation and construction works.

In contrast, there has been much more limited, if any, engagement by NERC (BGS) with city development planning and policy teams in LG. And as a result, there is limited awareness within LG development policy and planning teams of what NERC (BGS) data exists, or its relevance. There is also much weaker understanding within NERC (BGS) of: what is the most accessible delivery of NERC (BGS) data to these more strategic levels in LG; what capacity exists within planning teams to utilise different forms of strategic subsurface information; and exactly what range of decisions development planning teams are having to make, and what other datasets and research are required.

Local governments and NERC both need to develop higher impact from past investment in data[edit]

There is a strong need and aspiration within LG’s to develop higher impact from both their own data and RCUK data (including NERC (BGS)) to develop higher quality strategic knowledge which can inform early strategic decisions and development policy — Figure 1. Equally, it is essential for NERC (BGS) to develop stronger relationships with LG to be able to provide accessible relevant data, which can inform evidence‐based policy.

Local governments recognise the significant cumulative downstream benefit which could be realised by greater utilisation of data earlier in city development processes and policy. Indeed, this is seen as fundamental, rather than being aspirational, to LG being able to deliver required city development and infrastructure, with better outcomes and reduced costs, and attracting investment (GCC 2011[3], 2017[6]). It is at these early strategic stages of the city development processes where decisions are made about: how land assets are zoned for development; how to deliver integrated infrastructure and a low carbon, connected city; deciding what mitigation is required by LG’s to unlock brownfield land for development; and how appropriate investment opportunities should be prioritised, and generated.

Development of appropriate strategic knowledge and datasets from project‐scale and point data procured by LG is not straight forward — it requires detailed understanding of the questions being asked, the limitations and scale of the data, and thereby the most appropriate interpolated output, and upscaling methods.

NERC (BGS) has a key role to play here for local governments and cities — Figure 2. Successful development of this role will depend not only on greater data inflow to NERC (BGS) from LG’s, but also a greater understanding in NERC of what research is relevant and accessible to strategic levels of LG development processes — Figure 2. The Fellowship with GCC is aimed at developing better understanding of how each of these can be achieved, and to identify the most appropriate, sustainable mechanisms for replicating with other LG’s.

Figure 2    Higher quality strategic knowledge can be developed over time with increased data accessibility to NERC, LG and other stakeholders.


  1. UK Government. 2015. Industrial Strategy: government and industry in partnership: Business Information Modelling (BIM), pp.22.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Scottish Government. 2016. Draft Planning Delivery Advice: Housing and Infrastructure, Planning and Architect Division, Consultation, Scottish Government, pp.32.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Glasgow City Council. 2011. The Local Development Plan for Glasgow — Main Issues Report, Glasgow city Council, pp.129.
  4. Scottish Government. 2012. Scotland’s Digital Future: Delivery of Public Services strategy, Scottish Government pp.31.
  5. Morgan, J. 2014. Scotlands digital future: a data vision for Scotland, Presentation at ASK Network Event, 2014.
  6. Glasgow City Council. 2017. City Development Plan, GCC Development Planning, pp.X.