Features: July 11th, 2003

Leeds City Council Steps Up Efficiency With Geographical Information

Virtually every service a local authority offers has a geographical element. Having fast and accurate access to geographical information can help achieve improved service delivery. As a major user of Geographical Information Systems (GIS), from ESRI (UK), Leeds City Council is poised to fully leverage the power of GIS across its operation in line with e-Government guidelines.

Leeds City Council is the UK’s second largest Metropolitan Borough serving a population of 700,000. Its vision is to sustain the region’s strength based on giving all residents the opportunity to reach their full potential and lead a fulfilling life. In doing so Leeds maintains its international recognition as a thriving cosmopolitan centre for business, learning and the arts.

Better use of geographical information underpins the council’s strategy to bring positive change to the city. Leeds has invested in Geographical Information Systems (GIS) from ESRI (UK) that enable it to represent information in a spatial or geographical form to simplify processes and support decision making across many council departments.

Eileen Wainwright, assistant director, strategy and development, Leeds City Council, says, “Leeds uses spatially based information in all areas of the organisation. From dealing with local land charges, planning permission and environmental health, to community safety, social services and area regeneration, the whole council is geared for spatial data analysis.”


The planning department was the first to consider the benefits that digitised spatial information could bring to its services, particularly the area of land charges. Geographical representation meets the department’s role of finding and monitoring irregularities and particulars about a location or property.

Leeds knew that its paper based maps quickly became obsolete and were difficult to use. Also, completing a land or property report involved gathering information from various departments and manually creating reports which was time consuming. Digitising this information would make the whole process of carrying out land and property charge reports much quicker, more accurate and easier.

All councils have a statutory requirement to turn land charge reports around in 10 working days. The Leeds land and property market was also burgeoning; in 1995-96 Leeds received just over 17,000 land and property charge requests and this number increased to around 20,000 by 2002. Leeds was under pressure to meet these timescales and needed to cut processing times in order to reduce costs and avoid a backlog.

The Land and Property GIS was the catalyst for Leeds’ relationship with ESRI (UK), the country’s biggest provider of GIS solutions, which was chosen to develop the land and property application.

ESRI (UK) integrated data from the Land and Property Terrier (a repository for all land and property information) with information from departments such as Planning and Environmental Health, and Highways, which have significant impact on Land Charge Report findings. The system was also linked to other departmental information relevant to producing the reports. The system runs on a platform of Unix-based servers.

The land and property system went live in 2002 and has already demonstrated measurable benefits. For example, the time taken to complete a land charge report has now been halved, from an average of ten, to five days. Reduced time also means reduced cost in processing the reports. Leeds also predicts that it will be able to reallocate staff focused on land charge matters to other areas within planning as a direct result.

The MapExplorer tool provides a reliable and maintained source of geographical information at the user’s desktop, avoiding the need to search manually for certain basic facts. Take the issue of contaminated land as an example. The ESRI system provides a centralised source of information used to assess whether a particular geographical site is contaminated, supporting the Council’s duties under Part 2A of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. GIS enables spatial modeling to relate this information to possible pathways of contaminants.

Highways and transport

In Leeds’ Highways and Transportation Department, GIS is used to improve the speed and quality of responses to queries from the public, council members and staff.

It provides users with a map view of the location of:

  • Assets, such as streets, street lamps, furniture or structures. The council’s call centre operators can find, zoom to and verify the position of the feature or problem being reported whilst discussing it with the caller. More accurate instructions for rectifying the problem can then be automatically issued to the correct department.
  • Incidents or survey points, such as accidents or traffic census counting points. Users can perform spatial analysis to create reports and presentations based on the location of such incidents.
  • Extent and usage of highway land. Users can query adoption status or the effect of future, present or historical highways on a proposed development.

Local Strategic Parnership

The Leeds Initiative, the Local Strategic Partnership for the city, is also using ESRI GIS as the main means of pinpointing the areas of greatest deprivation within the Leeds Metropolitan District boundary, and providing the evidence necessary to put neighbourhood renewal schemes into action.

Through its Neighbourhoods and Communities Partnership, the Initiative is currently developing a targeting framework, known as the Local Statistics Project, that will provide the capacity to identify very precisely areas of greatest need across the city. While Leeds City Council is the driving force behind the project, the Leeds Initiative is able to add value by working through local partnerships, for example with police, health providers and educational bodies to deliver results.

Jacky Pruckner, geographic research and information team manager explains: “For the city to target its resources and activities at the areas of highest need we need to be able to provide evidence to show the exact location of those areas.

“Leeds has a very distinct geography in terms of deprived areas. There are many small areas of severe deprivation, often hidden within larger areas of more general deprivation or within areas of relative affluence. We know about some of them and where they are, but we need to evidence their severity and pinpoint even down to particular streets where the situation is at its worst. This means delving deeper than council ward data.”

Neighbourhood renewal activities need to be driven by a robust evidence base that is also capable of providing a baseline against which progress can be measured, particularly in terms of local floor targets. The Local Statistics Project provides the opportunity to analyse and map data relevant to the neighbourhood renewal floor targets, based on the five key areas of worklessness and jobs, crime, education and skills, housing and environment, and health.

GIS has been an essential tool in analysing and presenting data from various sources, for example, Council, police and health service, so that agencies in Leeds can easily understand the range and extent of a variety of socio-economic conditions across the city.

“Using GIS to overlay these datasets on a digital map, a picture of the levels of deprivation across the city is built up. This provides the evidence on which neighbourhood renewal plans can then be justified and actioned. GIS has also led to better information sharing between partners.”

GIS has already provided many significant benefits to the council, with future plans around the corner. Eileen Wainwright concludes: “GIS has become a cornerstone of Leeds’ service delivery strategy, and ESRI (UK) has provided the skills and technology to establish that.”

Learning from the project

As with all IT projects lessons are learnt along the way, and Wainwright has good advice for others. “If you’re embarking on your first phase of digitised maps, don’t underestimate the impact of data capture. If not handled effectively, the complex nature of geographical data capture and integration increase implementation times and delay benefits.”

Wainwright also says it’s important to evangelise the benefits of GIS in making it accepted as a corporate standard that can be used by multiple departments. In rolling out GIS across the corporation it’s also important to devise and agree standards and conventions for data collection.

As Leeds moves its GIS strategy up a gear it has signed a further strategic five year partnership agreement with ESRI (UK). GIS is central to Leeds’ plans for eGovernment delivery and the partnership ensures that ESRI solutions will be further deployed as a corporate standard, ultimately providing geographical information directly to Leeds citizens by 2005. In return, Wainwright is leveraging involvement in the development of ESRI (UK)’s solutions for local government, to ensure its GIS partner continues to meet its needs very closely.

Wainwright’s final advice is therefore about finding the right partner. “ESRI (UK) has always adopted a partnership approach to developing GIS at Leeds. They have provided what is needed when it is needed, and by working closely with us have ensured a good fit to our requirements. As we enter our new partnership together we look forward to the meeting the geographical challenges that lay ahead.”