New tools bring unique insights for policymakers and planners

The UK Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC) is the driver behind much of the UK’s groundbreaking research into infrastructure modelling and analytics; analysing future 5G network requirements through to the UK housing stock and construction requirements.

Led by the University of Oxford, ITRC is a consortium of seven leading UK universities whose mission is to investigate ways to improve the performance of infrastructure systems in the UK and around the world. The goal is to help reduce the risk of infrastructure failure and ensure investments are better targeted.

There are two developments which are particularly interesting for readers of Construction Excellence: PopNation and the Urban Development Model.

PopNation is a model which projects future demographic changes and the impact that this will have on the size and composition of the population and households in the UK. It models people and households at high spatial resolution, providing data which has not previously been available. PopNation can model different growth scenarios to estimate the number and attributes of households, which can be used to predict the number of homes required in an area. The model uses the 2011 UK Census of Population as the starting point and then adds demographic characteristics such as age, gender and ethnicity plus the characteristics of household such as dwelling type, household type, and socio-economic status. UK Census microdata from the Office of National Statistics is used to weight the assignment of people and households. The projection also incorporates other data sources on areas such as fertility, mortality and migration along with survey data from Understanding Society which helps to identify trends in household composition, like increasing numbers of single occupant households.

Rather than today’s very granular and high-level local authority level modelling, PopNation allows users to look at developments and produce projections of households for small areas, at the statistical geography of Output Area. The model can produce visualisations for a range of scenarios, to allow policymakers and planners to see exactly where new developments might be needed, what type of housing stock will be required for households at a point in the future, and the infrastructure which will be required.

Much infrastructure is supplied direct to individual houses, such as broadband, telephone, electricity, gas and sewerage. However, it has previously not been possible to map infrastructure demands to this level.

Nik Lomax, from the University of Leeds, is ITRC’s expert in modelling changes in demographic behaviour and responsible for PopNation. He explains, “PopNation will allow highly refined investment and infrastructure planning to ensure new housing developments meet future needs much more accurately than before. Policymakers will be able to use the scenarios and to have detailed information on the composition of the population as well as the size when looking at demand for different infrastructures. It will also allow planners early sight of any issues during the scenario modelling stage, well ahead of breaking ground and putting in requests for planning.”

PopNation’s demographic modelling also underpins and complements other aspects of ITRC’s work, one of which is the Urban Development Model, led by Professor Stuart Barr, ITRC’s expert in geospatial data analysis, based at Newcastle University.

The Urban Development Model, or UDM, is a new research tool which can identify areas in the UK suitable for future residential development and simulates the types of dwellings these areas can accommodate. Stuart and his team assign people and households to building stock and can then present a variety of scenarios to policymakers and planners which take into account future demands due to population growth and changing household structures.

It can pinpoint details such as land shortages in a particular areas due to different planning scenarios, and the impact this could have on the housing stock and infrastructure services in that particular area. For example, UDM can evaluate whether demand would need to be met predominantly by multi-storey flats rather than detached or semi-detached properties?

In addition to playing an important part in town planning for residential developments, the Urban Development Model will also help planners to identify whether offices and factories are being planned in convenient locations for employees to get to. It can also be used for aspects such as planning transport networks and other infrastructure, and to predict and future-proof against climate-related changes such as shifting flood patterns.

Scenarios can also be useful for policymakers, as they can look at scenarios of development and how these alter when constraints on Green Belt development or the floodplain are relaxed.

Perhaps the most high-profile use of the Urban Development Model to date is in the analysis of the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Arc; an immense proposed new development which will sweep from West to East, involving potentially 1 million new homes and new road and rail developments, schools, healthcare facilities and centres for employment. Designed to capture and maximise the knowledge intensive industries in those areas, the new development must also protect the environment and planners must present a cohesive plan for the entire region, satisfying pressures from land supply to transport, locations of jobs, financing for the infrastructure and meeting the need for new homes.