How planning applications can help family historians

27 Jun

Recently I have been doing quite a bit of searching for ancestral homes, and to do this I have had the need to access some quite detailed maps.

Google Maps (or Multimap etc) is good for finding streets and roads, but if I want to find a particular house number then it is not much help. The Ordnance Survey Get-a-map facility is good for exploring rural areas, but even at the most detailed level it very rarely names streets or roads and individual properties are very rarely named especially in built-up areas.

Highly detailed maps are usually only available at a price from Ordnance Survey Mapping and Data Centres and of course the best place to find historic maps is at County Record Offices or public libraries for the area concerned.

There is however one source online of detailed maps which identify individual properties, even in built up areas, which is free of charge and perhaps more helpful than the Ordnance Survey. I have not seen it mentioned elsewhere, so I am guessing it is not widely known about.

If you know an address (and it still exists under that name) and can find out which local council is responsible for approving planning applications, then there is a good chance you will find details and a precise location on that council’s website.

In a nutshell, the English and Welsh (not sure about Scotland or Northern Ireland) planning system means that if someone wants to make a structural alteration to their property, then they need to submit a planning application to the local council for approval. The council will give interested parties (such as neighbours) a chance to have their say before approving or rejecting the application. More and more councils seem to be making applications available to view online, and this means having a database of all the properties in their area marked on a map, thereby linking the whole thing together.

If you go to the relevant council’s website and find their planning pages you will probably find a link to the database (many council’s seem to use an application called “Public Access”). It is fairly self-explanatory to use, but I will put together and post a little working example to show how to use it. The application is not very pretty to look at, such that the map display is probably not something you will want to add to your family tree, but it should provide you enough information to locate the property on Google Maps or elsewhere. It should also be noted that the map display part of the application does not work in Firefox (unless you use the IE tab add-on) only Internet Explorer, although I haven’t tried any other browsers.

Of course you might strike it lucky and find that your ancestors property has had a planning application submitted, in which case you might find all manner of information, including detailed plans or even photos (although these probably won’t be of a very good quality after being scanned) and all manner of correspondence relating to the application. Bear in mind that most of the information online is going to be from the last few years, so it is not going to be a good source of historical material.

I will leave you with a screenshot of what I am talking about, and example from my own family tree taken from the Horsham District Council website: 6 Park Road, Henfield, Sussex (where John FAIRS was living in 1911). The green dots represent individual properties, the hatched areas are planning applications.

6 Park Road, Henfield on the Horsham District Council website

6 Park Road, Henfield on the Horsham District Council website

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