You are here: The Rise of Geospatial Data on the Internet

The rise of geospatial data and access to environmental information from the internet Impacts for the property professional

Part 1 Geospatial Data

What is geospatial data? This comes down to firstly the metadata, which in itself begs the question - what is metadata? Metadata is the technical word for 'data about data'. It is the term used to describe the characteristics of a set of data. In the area of geospatial information, or information with a geographic component, this normally means the What, Who, Where, When and How of the data. The only major difference between geographic metadata and the many other metadata sets is the emphasis on the spatial component - the 'where' element.

What - title and description of the dataset.
Why - abstract detailing reasons for the data collection.
When - when the dataset was created and the update cycles, if any.
Who - originator and data supplier.
Where - the geographical extent based on lat/long, co-ordinates, geographical
names or administrative areas.
How - how to obtain more information or order the datasets, formats, media
access, constraints.

Geospatial data need not necessarily be associated with a map. An address has a spatial reference associated with it but not in map coordinates. Indeed, increasingly remote sensing and photogrammetry are being used in addition to or instead of mapping.
What has developed in recent years is the notion of Intelligent Geospatial Data. That is the ability to organise and combine sometimes disparate and isolated data into a form that can be easily managed and analysed leading to meaningful communication and decision making. According to the OS “Geographic intelligence is the practical use of geographic information for business advantage. Whether enabling resource efficiencies, streamlining operations, facilitating joined-up working or informing strategy”.
The computer based tool to make sense of geospatial data is commonly referred to as a Geographic Information System (GIS). The industry is well developed and the applications have advanced significantly in terms of general use-ability in recent years.
It‟s the increase in digital data that has lead to the advancements and use of GI Data. In the area of geospatial data it‟s the Association of Geographic Information (AGI), which sets out standards for metadata with the aim of promoting the widest possible use and exploitation of geographical information.
Geographic information is used in multiple areas, some of which are listed here:

  • Recycling contaminated land
  • Monitoring pollution
  • Planning the built environment
  • Retail store location
  • Buying and selling of commercial and residential property
  • Asset Management
  • Managing the coastal zone and flood defences
  • Global warming monitoring
  • Satellite monitoring of land-use
  • Tree preservation orders
  • Access to the countryside and public rights of way
  • Planning the delivery of health services
  • Managing epidemics - such as the recent Foot & Mouth crisis
  • Geographic provision of emergency services
  • Crime and disorder analysis
  • Vehicle routing and general traffic management
  • Tracking of parcel deliveries
  • Delivering water, gas and electricity to customers
  • Planning and managing large sporting and cultural events
  • Joining up government, tourism and heritage
  • Planning safe school routes
  • Giving citizens greater access to government
  • Using GPS for navigation and service delivery
  • Public transport planning and provision

To put things in perspective independent research carried out by Oxford Economic Research Associates Ltd (OXERA), found that Ordnance Survey data underpins around £100 billion of business in Great Britain.
The most familiar geospatial information to us all is mapping. It may be stating the obvious but it‟s the maps that bring geospatial data to life. It is perhaps worth looking first at how we in Britain have come to have access to the worlds most comprehensive and detailed paper and digital mapping resource.
Whilst there may appear multiple companies that produce and supply mapping the majority all in part remain derivatives of Ordnance Survey (OS) base mapping.

The origins and development of the mapping of Britain, effectively is the same as looking at the history of the Ordnance Survey (OS). The creation of the OS dates back to 1791 when the Government required its Board of Ordnance (Ministry of Defence) to survey the south coast of England in detail, as a means for planning a defence against possible invasion. The latter decision resulted in the subsequent mapping of the whole country in detail and accounts for the mapping agency‟s idiosyncratic name - Ordnance Survey. The current status of OS is as a „Trading Fund‟; still part of Government but with significant control of its own finances and leeway for determining its future plans and developments. The OS has to meet its operating costs in the main by selling its products and services and the licensing of its data for use and sale by other parties.
It‟s the detailed maps which form the basis of the smaller scale maps, which are generalised versions of the base detailed map. Other suppliers such as the Automobile Association and Tele Atlas have utilised aerial photography and their own field teams but still in part take OS maps data in addition. Navteq use specially equipped vans gathering data to create a map of streets, drive times, signposts and other data. Teleatlas employ similar means but are also reliant on using an OS small scale base data. These latter street mapping layers have been developed primarily to meet the requirements of the satellite navigation companies and for commercial listing sites.

The OS is still the only provider of detailed mapping, outside specialist land surveys, but it is the street mapping and aerial photography that has resulted in a greater access to geospatial information via the world wide web. Google Maps and Live Maps from Microsoft have enabled multiple uses of geospatial data to become readily available via “mash ups”. That is the taking of two or more sets of data and creating an enhanced means of viewing and analysing the data. Typical applications can be seen in many property related web sites.

Listed below is a selection of some of the sites which have been drawn heavily upon in this paper. They go someway to illustrating the uses of geospatial data, specifically in the property arena, as well as providing additional background to the subject matter.
Ref   Web Site Selected Information Overview
1 the AGI web site which contains a wealth of information, providing all those interested in geographic information with an invaluable research tool.
2 Ordnance Survey Mapping and geospatial data
3 Street mapping, vertical imagry, hybrid street/aerial. Limited areas in 3D.
4 Multimap Mapping and Aerial
5 Rightmove Listings
6 Think Property Listings site where you can view your results on google mapping with local amenities information
7 Primelocation Listings with some comparables information
8 Upmystreet Neighbourhood Information
9 Checkmyfile Comparables
10 Chavtowns Wiki/social networking type site
11 Statistics for various administrative boundaries
12 Environmental postcode searches
13 Google streetview Visualise a street as you walk or drive using photography
14 Google earthware The ability to create 3D Fly throughs
15 Sketch Up (Google) Allows you to build your own 3D models

Property professionals, specifically surveyorsarchitects and planners are used to working with detailed plans whether it be for planning applications, location plans, visualisation or background design templates. What is the future here? The OS have created a new detailed mapping base. In the words of the OS “The whole multi-million project has now established a seamless information base which underpins a new generation of detailed data called OS MasterMap. Data from OS MasterMap offers definitive, consistent and maintained referencing to more than 440 million man-made and natural landscape features in Britain. They include everything from forests, roads and rivers down to individual houses, garden plots, and even pillar boxes.

In addition to this topographic mapping, entire new layers of information are being added progressively to OS MasterMap, such as aerial photographic images which precisely match the mapping; data providing the addresses of all properties; and integrated transport information. This is creating what is believed to be the most detailed and sophisticated geographical information resource for any country in the world.” The OS want to make it easier for property professionals and others to integrate their own content and data with Mastermap. How quickly the opportunities will be investigated and utilised will undoubtedly be determined as always by cost. The price of using detailed mapping has for a long time been seen as a significant barrier to developing area wide based new applications.
Alongside Mastermap, the OS is developing Pictometry. This is a technology which produces geo-referenced images and provides the user the ability to measure the height, length and area of features directly from the photography images, to see all sides of a building, structure or feature, exposing blind spots, exits and entrances previously impossible to locate on straight-down photography. Additionally you can view GIS data in 3D by draping it on oblique imagery, extending the traditional and more familiar 2D view afforded by most GIS applications. OS are not the sole Pictometry suppliers. Once again though, at this period in time, the cost is prohibitive for small scale schemes and everyday use.

What is developing is that currently the world of geospatial data and the related software, be it GIS or CAD, is growing fast thus presenting property professionals with some exciting opportunities and improvements to how they operate.

Part 2 Environmental Information

Property professionals need to be aware of environmental issues and impacts. It is now increasingly difficult for property professionals not to take proactive measures to protect themselves and their clients from potential environmental liabilities, in light of changes to legislation,
in the form of the Environmental Protection Act, the planning process, the RICS Guidance Note, and the Law Society Contaminated Land Warning Card.

The contaminated land regime, which is set out in Part 2A of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, was introduced in England on 1 April 2000, and on 1 July 2001 in Wales. A similar regime was introduced in Scotland on 14 July 2000. This legislation for the first time introduced potential liability from contamination issues to all property owners.
"Planning Policy Statement 23 ( PPS23 ): Planning & Pollution Control – Annex 2: Development on Land Affected by Contamination” now requires that normally as a minimum a Phase 1 Environmental Report is commissioned and submitted with planning applications, where there is potential for contamination issues and/or the land is considered sensitive to contamination.

For example Havant Borough Council state as guidance a minimum the Phase 1 Report should include:
A walkover survey including dated photographs
Location and site plan
Extracts and/or analysis of current and historical maps identifying
potential contaminating features
Description of ground conditions: hydrology, geology, soil classifications
Details of any sensitive receptors such as controlled waters, water
abstractions, sites of archaeological or ecological interest
Details of services on site
Details of former industrial/commercial uses such as processes and their
locations, nature of raw materials, products and wastes
Any existing documented records relating to the site‟s condition
Land contamination is not exclusively associated with major industrial
processes or waste disposal. Careful consideration must be given to a site‟s potential to be contaminated. Naturally occurring substances, informal uses and minor ancillary activities may all impact on soil quality.

Below is a summary using extracts from the RICS guidance note 'Contamination and Environmental Matters – their implications for property professionals, 2nd Edition' reproduced by kind permission of RICS.

Summary of RICS Guidance Note

The RICS Guidance notes are seen as „best practice‟ and by conforming to the practices recommended, surveyors should have at least a partial defence to an allegation of negligence by virtue of having followed those practices. Public opinion, public policy and the law are placing more responsibilities, liabilities and controls upon those who cause or might cause pollution and those who seek to acquire an interest in property affected by it. Whatever the particular professional service the chartered surveyor is providing, and for whomsoever he or she is acting, that service will be incomplete or inappropriate if it were to ignore any contamination implications for the property or the users of it. (Foreword)
When an allegation of professional negligence is made against a surveyor, the court is likely to take account of the contents of any relevant guidance notes published by RICS in deciding whether or not the surveyor has acted with reasonable competence. (Foreword)
The majority of Chartered Surveyors do not have the specialist skills to investigate contamination. (1.1.1)

Contaminated land and environmental matters are unlike many of the other issues surveyors face. While there is a great deal of published material about the identification of contaminated land, knowledge is constantly evolving.
Consumers and businesses are looking to professionals for guidance and reassurance in relation to environmental matters.
RICS Appraisal and Valuation Standards, 5th Edition comments that Surveyors should: „...alert clients if they believe that contamination could have a significant impact on the valuation...',
The majority of chartered surveyors do not have the specialist skills to comment on environmental matters.
Surveyors are unlikely to be insured by their professional indemnity insurance when completing questionnaires or informal letters from clients.
Caveats may not be professionally safe or appropriate when reporting.
Alternative commercial solutions such as value added reports can be used to comment and determine whether further specialist investigations are required.

Professional indemnity insurance
1.7.4 The Pollution Exclusion Clause: This policy shall not indemnify the insured against: "Any claim or loss (including loss of value) arising directly or indirectly from pollution..."
However, RICS does not consider that resort to caveats intended completely to exclude compliance with professional duties is likely to be a wholly reliable – or professionally acceptable – method of avoiding claims that may fall within the policy wording of the pollution exclusion.
1.7.6 Surveyors are unlikely to be insured through the medium of Professional Indemnity Insurance when completing Land Use Questionnaires provided by banks 3.3.2
Definition of ‘Contaminated land’ under Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990
2.3.2 Any land which appears to the Local Authority in whose area it is situated to be in such a condition, by reason of substances in, on or under the land, that: (a) Significant harm is being caused or there is a significant possibility of such harm being caused; or
(b) Pollution of controlled waters is being, or is likely to be caused‟ 2.3.11 Local Authorities are required to undertake investigations of their areas to ascertain whether or not land is „contaminated land‟.
Where a person has acquired land that is already contaminated, he or she may be liable in nuisance for the effect of any pollution of which he or she was aware or which he or she might have discovered if he or she had carried out reasonable investigations (Leakey v National Trust [1980]). The amount of damages will depend on individual circumstances and the wealth of the defendant.
In some circumstances, an owner may be deemed to have knowledge of matters that his professional advisers could have discovered if they had carried out proper investigations (Sedleigh-Denfield v O‟Callaghan [1940].

Identifying possible contamination: the surveyor’s role
3.2.1 RICS terms surveyors with the specialist knowledge and expertise to investigate contamination „chartered environmental surveyors‟. 3.3.2 Surveyors should bear in mind that a number of banks have produced their own land use questionnaires or checklists for use particularly in valuations for loan security. Many of the questions in these documents are open-ended, with pitfalls for the unwary. A typical phrase used in such questions is „to the best of your knowledge and belief...‟. These questions are difficult and potentially dangerous to answer without a comprehensive report being completed. Extensive discussions have been held between the members of the PII market and RICS concerning these questionnaires and checklists. Surveyors are unlikely to be insured through the medium of PII when completing these. However, the insurance market does not regard the completion of an RICS property observation checklist, when simply completed as part of a surveyor‟s other professional engagements, to be an environmental assessment. 3.4.14 Alternative cost-effective commercial solutions to mitigate against your risk such as value added reports may be available from commercial value added resellers. These are commercial companies that sell data already interpreted, with an opinion given by a chartered environmental surveyor.
6.2.3 The surveyor should consider whether to recommend, at the least, initial environmental investigations. 6.2.4 Surveyors are reminded that government policy in the area of contamination and environmental matters is to „let the informed buyer beware‟.

Reflecting specialists’ reports
10.1.2 “Unless the client has instructed or agreed that contamination is to be disregarded, it falls to the valuer in preparing valuations of contaminated land to exercise his or her judgement in reflecting the effect of contamination on the property to be valued”

Some of the content of the guidance note now form part of a new practice not forming part of the Red Book UKGN1.
The Law Society Warning Card guidance states that all legal professionals should advise clients to consider environmental risk in all cases - residential and commercial.
Law Society Warning Card on Contaminated Land Warning - To All Solicitors - Contaminated Land Liabilities
The advice contained on this Card is not intended to be a professional requirement for solicitors. Solicitors should be aware of the requirements of Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 but they themselves cannot provide their clients with conclusive answers. They must exercise their professional judgement to determine the applicability of this advice to each matter in which they are involved and, where necessary, they should suggest to the client obtaining specialist advice. In the view of the Law Society the advice contained in this Card conforms to current best practice.
Solicitors when undertaking conveyancing for their customers should be aware that environmental liabilities may arise and consider what further enquiries and specialist assistance the client should be advised to obtain.

Contaminated Land
1. The contaminated land regime was brought into effect in England on 1 April 2000. It applies to all land, whether residential, commercial, industrial or agricultural. It can affect owners, occupiers, developers, and lenders. The legislation, which is contained in Part IIA, Environmental Protection Act 1990 and in regulations and statutory guidance issued under it (see Contaminated Land (England) Regulations 2000 SI 2000/227 and DETR Guidance on Contaminated Land April 2000) is retrospective. It covers existing and future contamination.
The National Assembly is expected shortly to introduce similar regulations regarding contaminated land in Wales.
2. Local authorities must inspect and identify seriously contaminated sites. They can issue remediation notices requiring action to remediate contamination, in the absence of a voluntary agreement to do so. In certain cases ("Special Sites") responsibility for enforcement lies with the Environment Agency. A negative reply to the standard local authority enquiries from the local authority may

3.6.2 It is important that the surveyor agrees with the client, in advance, the basis of the report that the surveyor is being required to undertake and whether contamination is or is not to be considered. 3.6.3 RICS believes that reliance on the use of caveats, which have no basis in law, may not be entirely safe or professionally appropriate, when reporting to the client.
3.6.4 When reporting surveyors should not:
Make any statement of fact about previous uses, other than the present or where a statement can be (and is) properly qualified so as to reveal the source of the information: nor
Make any statement of opinion as to the risk of contamination being present in relation to land and buildings except, where as a result of his or her specific knowledge or training, the surveyor knows that a building harbours contaminative material; nor
Misrepresent any statement of opinion or conclusions prepared by Chartered Environmental Surveyor or qualified Environmental Consultant, who has been commissioned to undertake a specific investigation of the property for contamination, and which statement provides appropriate conclusions concerning historic and current land use.
3.6.5 A selection of possible reporting phrases for use in the report are given below and the relevant circumstances.

When a Client agrees not to investigate
(a) „We have been instructed not to make any investigations, in relation to the presence or potential presence of contamination in land or buildings, and to assume that if investigations were made to an appropriate extent then nothing would be discovered sufficient to affect value. We have not carried out investigation into past uses, either of the properties or any adjacent land, to establish whether there is any potential for contamination from such uses or sites, and have therefore assumed that none exists.

Value added report commissioned – No further investigations needed
(b) In carrying out this work we have carried out various enquiries in order, so far as is reasonably possible, to establish the potential existence of contamination arising out of previous uses of the site and it‟s neighbours. The extent of our enquiries and the results are described in this report at [Appendix XX]
Value added report commissioned – Further investigations needed
(g) Indications of potential contamination were noted during our inspection (as reported in appendix (x) of this report) and we recommend that further investigations be undertaken by a suitably insured and qualified chartered environmental surveyor or environmental consultant to determine the extent and nature of the contaminants and the likely costs of remediation.
merely mean the site has not been inspected. It does not necessarily mean there is no problem.
Compliance can be costly, and may result in expenditure which could exceed the value of the property.
Liability falls primarily on those who "cause or knowingly permit" contamination (a Class A person). If the authority cannot identify a Class A person, liability falls on a Class B person, the current owner, or occupier of the land. Class B persons include lenders in possession. There are complex exclusion provisions for transferring liability from one party to another. Some exclusions apply only on the transfer of land, or the grant of a lease. The applicability of any relevant exclusion needs to be considered before entering such transactions.
In every transaction you must consider whether contamination is an issue.

Conveyancing Transactions
In purchases, mortgages and leases, solicitors should:
1. Advise the client of potential liabilities associated with contaminated land. Generally clients should be advised of the possibility and consequences of acquiring interests in contaminated land and the steps that can be taken to assess the risks.
2. Make specific enquiries of the seller In all commercial cases, and if contamination is considered likely to be a risk in residential cases, (e.g. redevelopment of brown field land):
3. Make enquiries of statutory and regulatory bodies.
4. Undertake independent site history investigation, e.g. obtaining site report from a commercial company.
In commercial cases, if there is a likelihood that the site is contaminated: 5. Advise independent full site investigation.
6. Consider use of contractual protections and the use of exclusion tests. This may involve specific disclosure of known defects, possibly coupled with price reduction, requirements on seller to remedy before completion, and in complex cases the use of warranties and indemnities.

Unresolved problems, consider:
7. Advising withdrawal, and noting advice;
8. Advising insurance (increasingly obtainable for costs of remediation of undetected contamination and any shortfall in value because of undisclosed problems).

Specific Transactions
1. Leases Consider if usual repair and statutory compliance clauses transfer remediation liability to tenant, and advise.
2. Mortgages. Advise lender, if enquiries reveal potential for or existence of contamination, and seek instructions.
In enforcement cases, consider appointment of receivers, rather than steps resulting in lender becoming mortgagee in possession, and so treated as a Class B person.
3. Share sales and asset purchases
Consider recommending the obtaining of specialist technical advice on potential liabilities, use of detailed enquiries, warranties and indemnities.

Other Relevant Legislation
Other legislation and common law liabilities (e.g. nuisance) may also be relevant when advising on environmental matters including:

  • Water Resources Act 1991
  • Groundwater Regulations 1998
  • Pollution Prevention and Control (England and Wales) Regulations 2000

In terms of risk and value however, of more significant concern, you may argue, is Flood Risk. As demonstrated in the June/July 2007 floods that ravaged Britain costing insurers between £2.25 and £3.25 Billion, whilst significantly disrupting multiple businesses amongst the 10,000 properties effected. A point to note is that RMS, a provider of products and services for catastrophe risk management analysed 1,000 affected postcodes and found that almost 70% of the areas hit by the July floods were in areas considered to be off major river floodplains. Global Warming will no doubt continue to increase the risks.
High profile media coverage of subsidence-affected properties offers a timely reminder of the importance of Ground Stability. Again the effects of global warming and continued low rainfall have led to a dramatic rise in subsidence cases across the UK. Cavernous holes have opened up on leafy, suburban streets as previously unknown mines have been discovered, emphasising the fact that issues of ground stability are by no means limited to traditional mining areas.

For residential owners there are additional reasons to pay attention to the environment surrounding their investment. For them whilst health and safety may be an issue more often than not it‟s the fear of having their prize asset devalued. Hence, the need for knowledge, which may determine the risk of blight. E.g. defra News Release – 21 February 2003 reported on a study that looked at over half a million sales of houses situated near UK landfill sites and found that those properties sited within half a mile of a landfill site suffer statistically significant disadvantages. The value of houses on average was £5,500 lower than like houses not within a quarter a mile of a landfill. Likewise living in a neighbourhood with the sweet smell of sewage or other released nasty odours from industrial processes will not be good for value. Lastly naturally occurring contamination e.g. Radon should be considered and less natural say EMF from mobile phone masts.
Without taking into account the environment the result in both residential and commercial transactions may be

  • Inherited legal liability
  • Devalued Asset
  • Structural damage
  • Health & Safety
  • Inconvenience and disruption
  • Delay
  • Bad publicity
  • Common areas for commercial property practitioners where environmental information is appropriate
  • Environmental due diligence in commercial property transactions
  • Valuation reports - assets, bank, loan security and pension funds
  • Evaluating development opportunities
  • Conducting a pre-site enquiry
  • Assisting the decision making process on environmental liabilities
  • Property auction marketing
  • Portfolio work

This is where the situation for the property professional can enter a grey area. You can think of many occasions where some information is required. However, what level of information is appropriate? How do you determine what is appropriate? Who is responsible you, the client or another professional property adviser?

There is some clarity. For residential transactions it’s established in the market that it is buyer beware - but they are going to be advised so it’s more now a case of the informed buyer beware. Residential conveyancing solicitors have adopted the principles laid out in the Law Society’s Warning Card process and in the vast majority of cases those acting for the purchaser advise their clients proactively to consider environmental issues, recommending the purchase of commercially available residential screening reports. Of the 1.2 million housing transactions in excess of 70% have one of these reports commissioned.
In relation to commercial transactions, planning applications, investments, feasibility studies and audits the situation is less clear cut. Whilst large commercial and industrial schemes will generally employ the services of an environment consultant and PPG23 also creates the need to employ an environmental consultant as well; in the majority of commercial property proposals there still remains a grey area as to what is appropriate and who is responsible.

Yes solicitors acting in commercial transactions may well advise their clients to consider environmental issues but matters seem less clear cut in other scenarios with other professional property advisers being involved and not necessarily in a coordinated manner. Evidence from the commercial search providers combined with the number of Phase 1 studies carried out by Environment consultants suggests that the issues are not being addressed formally in many instances.

A prime example is commercial valuations. Surveyors particularly are often put in an onerous position. Certain lenders will pressure them to comment on matters that are beyond their professional expertise and PI, asking open ended questions in Land Use Surveys forms as part of the valuation. Some will advise them to commission a commercial report but this is not always clear in the letters of instruction and others will neither make no mention of environmental and contamination matters nor cover additional costs leaving the surveyor to determine what advice to give, if any to the bank’s end potential client. Conflicting pressures of time and money lead to a contradictory position.

The problem facing property professionals is now further complicated because given the constant press and availability of environment information on top of guidance from professional bodies it is difficult to ignore.
Some of the sites offering free environmental outputs are: (What's in my backyard)

However, these are either postcode based (not site specific) or snapshots leaving a huge potential for missed risks.

Information is also available from a host of local archives and libraries but is impracticable to collate on a site by site basis.
When considering environmental matters there is wealth of information available and it’s likely to increase over time. What is fit for purpose and/or what they should recommend to a client is a challenge for both the environment professionals, commercial and free information providers, professionals and professional organisations to get to grips with. The conclusion is that it is a subject that property professionals need to engage themselves and particularly with their clients.

David Dixon, Commercial Manager
Landmark Property and Environment
The Smith Centre, Fairmile, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire RG9 6AB
t: 01491 418922,