Using The UK Planning System For OSINT30th November 2020
There’s a huge difference between countries when it comes to using publicly available records for OSINT. If you’re researching a subject in the USA there’s a wealth of available information. In the EU it’s almost the opposite and it can be very difficult to find any public data at all.
The UK is much more similar to the EU than the USA when it comes to data privacy and public resources for personal information. Nevertheless there’s still plenty of information out there if you’re prepared to dig a little.
One of the most useful resources (but one that is often overlooked) are the Planning Portals that every local authority in the UK provides. Anyone who wants to build a property, alter an existing one, change land use, or demolish something has to submit a public planning application. The plans and any associated correspondence are all publicly available so that anyone can comment on them. This also means that curious OSINT practitioners can trawl through them as part of their investigations.
Generally data like email addresses and phone numbers are redacted, but not always. All other information such as names, addresses, business details, and strong personal opinions are available to find if you know how to look.
Although there are hundreds of local authorities in the UK, they all use almost exactly the same software for running their local planning portals, which means that the same search techniques work across almost all of them.
Let’s have a look at what we might be able find.
Find The Right Local Authority
You need to identify the correct Local Authority first. A Google search for <town name> + local authority will usually identify the correct one. Just be aware that big cities like London are split up into many smaller local authorities that will have their own planning portal (except Hackney, whose planning portal was destroyed by ransomware.)
To find the planning portal, a search for <town name> + planning portal or <local authority> + planning portal will usually find the right website.
For example if I want to research someone who lives in Aylesbury, a search for “Aylesbury Planning Portal” will take me to the relevant council website.
Click on “search for planning applications” to go to the portal.
There are a few different ways to search. You can search by keyword, address, or postcode. Advanced searches will often also let you search by applicant name. There are also weekly/monthly lists featuring the most recent applications.
The map feature lets you view and filter applications by location and date. Just be aware that if you scroll outside of the local authority’s jurisdiction, you won’t be able to see results from other council areas. You’ll have to go to the planning portal for that area instead.
You need to zoom in to see the location for each planning application. In the example below, the red boxes denote the boundary of a property where there is a planning application to view.
Click on “Application Details” in the popup to access the documents:
What’s In A Planning Application?
The amount of available information depends on the nature and size of the application. As a minimum there will be an initial application which will usually contain the name and address of the occupant/applicant and any building plans. There will also be a rationale from the council as to whether the building work can proceed (or not).
All documents relevant to that location can be viewed and downloaded via the documents tab. They appear in reverse chronological order.
Sensitive personal information is usually redacted from the initial applications, but where there is correspondence between councils and applicants the redaction is often much more inconsistent and it is possible to find phone numbers, email addresses, and other types of personal data.
The Comments tab publishes details of the views of any third parties. These are usually quite benign and consist of nothing more than the views of other local statutory bodies, but when an application is unpopular or controversial they can be a huge OSINT goldmine.
Let’s have a look at a few examples.
Example 1 – A 5G Mast
5G masts are subject to planning regulations, so they feature on local planning portals along with all the associated documentation. The story above comes from the city of York, where a new 5G mast is due to be built on top of the Park Inn hotel.
With a quick search we can find the planning portal for York. A free text search for “Park Inn” brings up the relevant applications (sometimes applications have to be resubmitted in which case there can be multiple entries, as in this case).
In the documents we can see a certificate to show that the 5G masts meet the safety requirements for human health. Notice though that in the rationale for the application the signature has been redacted, but the mobile number and email address of the applicant have not.
Example 2 – Changes To An Air Force Base
Even the military are not exempt from the scrutiny of the local council. Although planning applications at sensitive sites are often redacted, it is still possible to make inferences about planning applications on restricted sites.
The planning map for RAF Marham has historic planning references relating to new armament storage facilities, runway refurbishment, and a dedicated RAPTOR maintenance facility. You’ll notice that there are no publicly viewable planning applications made in the last five years. It might be coincidence, but there’s probably a good reason for the recent extra security.
Example 3 – Human Trafficking & Hand Car Washes
Hand Car Washes are often subject to investigations by anti-slavery agencies. Conducting OSINT on these type of businesses can be difficult but if you want to run a car wash, you still have to have planning permission. This means that it is possible to pick up a few details from planning portals to use as pivot points to being researching the people who own or control the car washes.
A keyword search for “car wash” on a planning portal is a good way to begin researching these kind of topics.
This article refers to a recent slavery investigation at a car wash in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire. The original application is old (2004) and lacks detail but a more recent application to modify the fencing at the location gives the names and addresses of the owner and the workman he commissioned.
Hand Car Washes often operate in legal and economic grey areas, but the names and addresses found in the planning application can be used as pivot points to build a profile of activity and ownership of these kind of businesses.
I should be clear that the original article states that no evidence of criminality was found at this particular car wash, and there is no suggestion that those mentioned in the application have done anything wrong.
Example 4 – Controversial Housing Plans
Forget Brexit or COVID. Absolutely nothing awakens the average Briton to political action like a controversial planning application. As a result there a plenty of planning cases to be found in local newspapers that we can use for case studies.
A Google News search for “planning objection” brings up plenty of examples. Here’s a mass objection to a new housing estate in Lancashire.
There are over 240 entries in the “comments” part of this application, and more than 420 documents consisting of letters, photographs, and architectural information. It is rare to find any other resources that contain the same level of personal information in any other type of open UK records that are freely available.
For privacy reasons I haven’t linked to any directly, but by searching the planning records for any private or business address it is usually possible to find out the current and former occupants or owners. Usually this kind of data is restricted or locked behind a paywall.
If you do a lot of UK OSINT it’s often possible to combine queries of local planning systems with other resources like the Land Registry and Companies House to build detailed profiles of both individuals and businesses.