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What makes a good LPA web site? – UPDATED

by on April 30, 2009

One of the Killian Pretty projects we’ve picked up asks us to identify and promote excellent LPA websites.

I’d be very interested to hear your views on what a good local authority planning web site contains and some examples of best practise. I’m happy for those of you at LPAs to blow your own trumpet and I’ll moderate out any intemperate responses.

THE NEW BIT
We are now enhancing our research on this project with a survey (now closed) to help identify the key content building blocks of the perfect local planning website. Once complete the findings will be circulated to Local Planning Authorities to help inform their online service delivery.

The survey should only take a couple of minutes to complete and the more feedback we get – the better the guidance will be. Thanks in advance…

From → Killian Pretty

46 Comments
  1. Sarah Jakubiak permalink

    Websites that are clearly laid out with online proposals maps that are easy to locate. Usability of these maps is also critical to developers in terms of being able to search on road names and grid references. Maps that are of a size that don’t require x-ray specs. Proposals maps that show TPOs-Tameside good example of this, Footpaths-Cheshire (both east and west) a good example. The Mario system used by Lancashire and Cheshire East and West is also useful for developers. Flood risk zones are rarely identified on proposals maps but this would be useful. Most of all, wedsites that give names, responsibilities and direct telephone numbers avoid frustrations and make them good in my book!

    • Chichester District Council planning website is very good in terms of information posted for each application in the system, and the ease with which a full plannig history of a property can be viewed with full details of each application.
      Many other websites have very little detailed information to accompany the bare bones of the applications.
      One downfall on many sites is the lack of clarity in what the local list of requirements for supporting information includes. It would be really usefull if new additions to the list were flagged up so that we don’t get caught out by missing a new requirement.

  2. The Section 106 element of the Council’s website is brilliant, with its easy to use template and bolt-on components to create the S.106 document suited to the particular development proposed.

    The downloadable documents are already kitted out with tracked changes so everyone can easily see how the original template has been amended at each stage of the process.

    Why can’t every Council put this simple and effective tool in place?

    • The missing element from the way my initial comment has been posted is the part which identifies the LPA whose S.106 webpage is so good … it’s Torridge District Council in Devon. Every Council in the Country should copy it.

  3. David Tittle permalink

    A clear structure that is maintained over time. Most users are regulars so need to be able to go back and find things in the same place.
    A user-friendly e-planning system that consistently enables you to download drawings and other documents in a commonly readable form (i.e. not via some obscure special file-reading technology).
    It’s not much to ask.

  4. This website, particularly the planning section is excellent. It is easy to navigate, for example a simple A-Z street search quickly gets you to a specific address in contrast say to XXXXXX City Council which is quite cumbersome and awkward.
    The big plus with the NSC website is the amount of visible information available to view in the individual planning application case files. Whilst this does give the LPA some problems, it is extremely useful for agents and public alike to track the progress of applications, and to respond when necessary.
    It has much valuable reference information on all planning matters, although it is very short of guidance documents whereas Bristol is excellent in this respect. South Glos has the same simple and quick street search facility. A good website should be attractive, have clear links to sub pages, quick to open pages, and should enable you to quickly find what you are looking for.

  5. Kenny Foxwell permalink

    I use several of the LPA websites in Sussex, Surrey & Hampshire and find myself frustrated with the vast differences between them. Some do and some don’t show documents and plans, some do and some don’t show consultation comments, some work well but aren’t easy to navigate and some hardly work at all (sorry XXXX). For me, a good LPA website is one which:

    1. Shows all the information about an existing application, updated swiftly as new documents arrive.

    2. Easy to navigate, without all the “what’s on in xxx this week”, etc. gubbins clogging up the page.

    3. Plain English guidance on local requirements, available to download or read online, not request copies.

    4. Being able to search for existing applications by using anything, not just application number, ward, parish, etc.

    5. Showing constraint information – “no constraint information available” just means more phone calls to the LPA to check.

    Anyway, that’s my view. I think it would be a good idea to find a good one and (as far as is practicable) use that as a model for the rest. Focus less on aesthetics and more on function and availability of complete information. Thanks for reading.

    Kenny.

  6. Poole Borough have the most comprehensive and easily accessible planning search webite that I have come across. I rarely have to visit their office except to attend meetings. Planning histories are a doddle. All responses to applications are accessible and enable issues to be addressed. I have only encountered occasional glitches. Up to date guidance on policy. Proforma planning obligations are brilliant ( I know some people have not understood how to use it, but I say persevere.)

  7. The ability to view all documents including plans for large and small projects where there may be public concern. It is important that this be updated at all times to reflect the current the applications current status.

  8. Of course we all fall foul of the need to be AAA compliant, and sit alongside a corporate image on line. This restricts how we deliver our corner of the web site. But what is best in my opinion is not more than three clicks for anything, keep it as simple as possible and easy to navigate search fields is best.
    And the use of on line mapping is really useful to keep a visual element that is a core part of our specialism.
    Its planning professionals, public, members and others such as search companies, as well as other Authorities that we cater for. And they all have differing priorities.
    The move towards greater transparency and more of the file documentaion on line, with status information and email alerts are on the wish list.

  9. I would prefer that my unedited original comments be posted please

    • PortalDirector permalink

      Hi ,
      I rarely edit comments but entreat folks to try and get their general point over without directly critiscising any individual or planning team.
      I’ll take specific points up with LPAs directly but if I allow critiscism of them in open forum it makes the job of getting them on-side much tougher.
      I hope you’ll understand.
      Chris

  10. John Hobden permalink

    Like Kenny I use a number of LPA websites in my area. King’s Lynn (Caps Solutions)is by far the best as they scan every document and e-mail sent to them in relation to applications. I can read planning history and current comments and act on them without having to take up officer time. One of the Cambridgeshire ones does not even show the basic application documents and still ask for all amended documents in paper form even though the application was submitted electronically.

    I receive enquiries relating to applications (not just my own) and can guide people through the documents online.

  11. Gareth Elvidge permalink

    Any council website that has planning applications listed by week number is a complete waste of taxpayers money. If you don’t know the reference number or when (if)validated you can spend hour trawling through. The simple public access, with application number, post-code or address is simple and LPAs should be enforced to adopt this. LPAs who have the applications listed by week numbers only obviously never have to look for an application.

  12. Dawn Wylie permalink

    It would be nice to see all LPA websites following a similar format; as someone that uses many throughout the South East, i have become accustomed to having to sift through piles of information to find exactly what I am after – fine for me, but I’d imagine Joe Public who just wants to see how big is next door neighbour’s extension is going to be would rather quickly become fustrated.

    One can’t help but feeling LPA’s purposefully make certain information more difficult to locate – unjustified, perhaps.

    Also, further to David Tittle’s comment, there are a number of websites, Chelmsford’s in particular, where you have to individually download each page of each document- which is cumbersome and time consuming.

    • _______________________________________________________________
      Dear Sirs,

      I would like to endorse the views of Dawn Wylie. All planning websites should be similar in arrangement and layout. I spend, no waste, a lot of my time trying to find simple basic information and find it difficult as my mind obviously uses a different logic to that of web designers. [I am pleased to say.] Why does every Council have to re-invent the wheel when they place information onto their website?

      The Oxford City Council web-site is excellent for discovereing the history of a particular site, and those in the location. Bedford Borough Council’s site is, by comparison, slow and plodding. Kettering Borough Council’s site, which has supposedly won awards, is such a long process to find anything. It is so long that one almost loses the will to live! In addition a lot of the relvant information is missing.

      To check the progress of applications, the Kettering site is better than most, but still is not updated sufficiently with comments and progress information.

      We Architects are simple folk. We want information to be available quickly, to enable us to assess the constraints of developing in a particular location.

      Whilst writing, I would like to complain about the 1APP process which has defeated me everytime I have tried to use it. Is this because I am computer illiterate, or is it the system. The process was supposed to be simple, and to make submitting a planning application easier, but unfortunately it has had the opposite result. It has become far more complicated. Bring back individual application forms, please.

      Yours faithfully,

      Graham Wright.
      ________________________________________________________________

      • PortalDirector permalink

        Hi Graham,
        what is it about the process that is defeating you?
        Chris

  13. I have found that New Forest District Council have been particularly good recently at publishing all information regarding an application on the website. Drawings, consultations, officers reports etc. are all put on very quickly saving an awful lot of time travelling to Lyndhurst or pestering Planning Officers for updates. The applications are easy to find by any method. This is in contrast to another local service that publishes nothing at all with respect to drawings and consultation on planning applications which are difficult to find unless you know the specific application number.

  14. It is very rarely that I am impressed by anything achieved by local authority staff, but simply go to the planning section of the Kingston Upon Thames website and look no further !
    The software was evidently written in-house by council staff, and
    had they had someone with commercial experience and entrepreneurial ability, they would have repackaged that software and sold it to every planning authority in the country. Yes, it is THAT good !
    (P.S. No connection whatever with Kingston Upon Thames council or any of its membersor employees ! ! ! )

    • David Wright: PMA design permalink

      I would entirely agree with the comments with regard to Kingstons website. This would set a good benchmark for other LPA’s to adopt. With the APP1 approach to standardisation and the presentation of applications that are now expected it is not unreasonable to expect the users of the system to have an efficient website to deal with.

  15. Deena permalink

    Council websites need to adopt a clear and easy layout, many require too many ‘clicks’ to get to the information you require. The public should be able to have a minimum of 2 clicks, in my opinion, in order to get to the page/information they need/want.
    Information should be located EASILY, QUICKLY and should be updated regularly.

  16. Most of the comments so far seem to relate to publishing details of planning applications online.

    This is a small, albeit important percentage of the planning information we publish and most authorities use an external software supplier to do this (often the supplier of the back office system) – most of us don’t have the expertise or resources to shop around or write our own software. Local authorities therefore have minimal influence over the design of the web interface beyond how easy it is to locate and which documents are published – this in itself is not straightforward as we receive complaints not just that we publish too little but also that we publish too much.

    As a planning web editor for my local authority, my difficulty is how to organise the vast amount of other information (including the LDF evidence base) so that a wide range of customers including professionals, local parish councils and members of the public, can find it quickly. We are open to learn from best practice and I would be interested in your views about which authorities do this well.

  17. This is a useful debate which appears to be calling for Pendleton plus! I submit applications across Surrey, Kent, Sussex, London and sometimes still further afield (agree Poole are very good).

    The key to the success is clarity, ease of use and openness. I would single out Wealden DC as a good example with a virtual file and objections scanned and available online. Creating chance to positively respond early to criticisms and even revise plans if neccessary. Other LPAs I deal with are incredibly secretive when it comes to this level of information and some allowed Pendleton to ‘pass them by’.

    The number of suppliers of planning software inhibits greater standardisation contrary to emerging trends in planning generally. If you deal with just one or two LPA’s, fine, but this is more difficult and challenging when you submit applications across an entire region.

    The ‘local opposition’ organised websites, set up to lobby and seek to prevent developments, are sometimes better than the LPA’s in which they are based – or at least entertaining and occassionally misleading!

  18. John Hobden permalink

    I too have major problems with 1App online. It simply takes far too many clicks and can take up to four hours per application if the internet connection is slow. I have discussed it at length with technical support but they don’t think there is a problem. My solution has been to scan the forms, convert to an editable Word document then e-mail direct to the LPA, bypassing the Portal. Now takes about 15mins per application. The Portal was so good before 1App – why did it have to go so wrong?

    • PortalDirector permalink

      Hi John,
      I can’t answer your problem without knowing more about you’re set up but this sounds very unusual. Could it be that you have a poor broadband service or even dial-up. If so that may be the root cause.
      If not let me know and I’ll investigate personally.
      Chris

  19. after we posted our last comment about our first post being edited the portal director inserted a strange comment (8 May)about editing which suggested he was referring to our comments, although we did not criticise the LPA which he has removed and replaced with Xs.
    The missing LPA is North Somerset Council who as I said have a generally excellent website.

    • PortalDirector permalink

      Hi, I think we might be at cross purposes here.
      I only changed 1 word in your entry and that was the one that identified a particular city councils website as being awkward and cumbersome. Your reference to NSC was left in!

  20. It would be very helpful if all LPA websites contained listed building descriptions wwhich could be downloaded, and checked. S

  21. Neil Landricombe permalink

    It is important that local authorities describe the documents by naming them rather than posting onto the website with a number. Many local authorities are still not labelling documents. It is also important that the link to the planning application search is easy to find on the website. Some local authorities consult when the documents have not been added on-line. Consultation should only start when access to view documents is available. I think that e-planning is an effective tool when the above is employed.

    Good example: local authorities using PublicAccess (an application produced by CAPS Solutions) e.g. Bracknell Forest, Rushmoor and Woking.

    • Ian Davie permalink

      I agree with Neil Landricombe’s comments on Woking Borough Council’s website, and wish to expand on these comments to say why this site is so good.

      As a statutory consultee struggling with E-Planning, Woking Borough Council’s website provides welcome break from the general pain e-planning causes. The key strong points are:

      1. You can search for applications and history in a variety of ways: by address, application number, using a map

      2. There are folders for the approved plans, officers reports, decisions, representations, technical reports, etc. Saving trawling through a long list of documents.

      3. All the plans are clearly labelled – saving large, and often unnecessary, downloads.

      4. You can scale the plans on-line using a measure distance tool, or download them in PDF format. The measurement tool is brilliant, as I need to know the size of the developments, the distance between aspects of the development and the site without printing off a plan at an (often) unspecified scale.

      Using these features, I do not need to request plans from Woking Borough Council. This makes E-Planning workable, the whole point is that I do not need to request copies of the plans so I can make an informed judgement on the application.

      The plans are usually available from the consultation date, not several weeks later, a must to improve response times to planning applications.

      If only all planning websites were as useful as this my work life would be much easier.

      Ian

  22. george bond permalink

    it seems to me that most of the authorities have competent websites but the content (or lack of it) on some leaves a bit to be desired. West Lancs for example doesn’t publish enforcement information prior to decision, Sefton doesn’t publish all the correspondence.
    It appears that anything that the local policy may regard as contentious or difficult to defend or explain can be omitted.
    There should be a standard format and a requirement to publish ALL the information (ie fill in all the boxes on the planning portal template).
    I reckon the development control officers are being economical with information when it suits them.
    George Bond

  23. Ian Southworth permalink

    The problem with many LPA sites is that they are difficult to use. Documents are not clearly labelled and in some cases are not in a logical order (I had one example of an ES which had the index and introduction as the last document on the site). When you are faced with 165 seperate documents for one application and the only description you can understand (without opening the document) is ‘application form’, it is somewhat daunting. What it must be like for the ‘casual visitor’, doesn’t bear thinking about.

    A good site should ensure that all maps and plans are scanned in in colour. It’s frustrating when you have 2 black edged rectangles and are trying to decide which is the red edge and which the blue!

    They need to be correctly orientated. To many sites have ‘landscape documents’ in ‘potrait’ and no means to re-orientate them.

    The clarity of the documents needs to be good. At present on some sites it is difficult to read some plans, even if you zoom in as they then just become fuzzy.

    Finally, links should be simple and kept to a minimum. Currently on some sites you have to go through to many screens to get to the document(s) you want.

    • Michael Stephenson permalink

      With regards to displaying documents in the correct orientation it would be helpful (certainly for me and presumably for others responsible for scanning & uploading documents) if plans were submitted to the Portal in the correct orientation.

      Whilst rotating a document is usually a simple click away I believe the Portal run plans through Adobe Live Cycle (to enable the measuring tool) which unfortunately restricts this option. To rotate the document you have to save a copy, close the version you’re looking at, go to the other copy, rotate the plan and then move it back. Whilst this isn’t overly time consuming for a few documents an application with lots of plans can take some time.

  24. North London Planning permalink

    A good LPA website needs to have clear links to the planning pages from the LPA homepage. The planning section must have a good search page to search for current and past applications as well as decision notices. As a statutory consultee we like all valid application documents to be loaded onto websites before we are consulted and not wait for plans to be uploaded to websites up to a week after we are consulted. Having the case officers name and contact details dealing with specific applications on the website makes things easier.

    We would really like to see file naming for planning applications improved on some LPA websites with document names and indexes specific and reflecting the content of the file e.g. ‘File Number 002.pdf’ = Bad practice. ‘Flood Risk Assessment 3.pdf’ = Good practice. File formats need to be common and easy to open and file sizes no larger than 5Mb in total. Documents should be scanned to a minimum 200 dpi and include a scale bar and clearly annotated.

    Some of the London Boroughs have been very open to our comments on problems with their websites and we look forward to working with other boroughs to try and streamline the planning section of their websites and processes ever further.

  25. In the ideal world, some sort of uniform formatting and organisation of planning information would be superb. Obviously this would need to be flexible but to begin, a general agreement on universal terms would avoid confusion. I was thinking how research into the best practice of LPA websites and how to apply this would be a valuable dissertation subject area. Perhaps for an undergraduate planning or IT student?

  26. Ealing website excellent example of simple, logical system. Sorry to say but the Planning Portal would do well to follow these principles.

  27. Des Rylands permalink

    It would be very helpful if you could give actual website addresses of the good ones so we could have a look
    Des Rylands
    Preston Brook Parish Council
    Runcorn

  28. Jon permalink

    I would agree with many of the comments:

    i) there is great variability between Councils in terms of design and content

    ii) uploaded documents need file names describing content, file/type and file size. The number of pages in the file would also be a useful addition….before clicking on a file to discover there’s 10MB on its way whilst your computer freezes

    iii) dynamic and static mapping needs to be integrated with other components and also made readily available. Sometimes maps are all over the place – pdf on how to get to the Civic Centre in one place; a word document with a Conservation Area boundary in another; access to a GIS system elsewhere. I attempt to find out if individual properties are within Conservation Areas but this is often impossible. Tree Preservation Order issues are of a similar nature. New Forest website is brilliant as the individual TPOs have been scanned and can be downloaded

    iv) but the most basic criticism is one of integration with the telephone system. Many Councils now advertise only one telephone number which uses a call centre (customer service is doomed!) approach. One has to listen to the messages about paying your council tax etc etc etc before the phone actually gets anywhere and then the message to say that if you are still waiting you should be able to find the nformation on the Councils’ website…..but I’m on the phone because the information isn’t available on your useless website!…..and so I’m pulling my hair out before I’ve even spoken to anyone. Once you get through to a person they refuse to put you through to the person who you met on site yesterday but they will leave a message for them to get back to you…. I’m still waiting for a number of Council’s to get back to me after several months. There should be telephone numbers of individuals or at least individual sections e.g. Planning Query Help Line in which named individuals and a named Head of Department are accountable. In a few Councils planning officers do let a select few have their telephone numbers and circumvent the system; the level of frustration is immense. Simple dialogue will resolve many issues and prevent much of the frustration with the planning system

  29. Jon permalink

    Another point. In the simple world we know we are dealing with the right Council. There is no doubt. But take a larger property…a private school for example near a Council boundary in a two or even three tier system (Town, District, County). I spent some considerable time trying to discover which Council I should be phoning (ow whether I needed to contact two separate Councils) for a property in Dorset. Whilst some sort of shared mapping system was in place it wasn’t detailed enough.

    Several Councils appear to work in a vacuum with no mention that other “Councils” exist in their area (and Parish Councils too), or in adjacent areas (so no links to their websites either on their main page or close by). I’ve just come across Warwick DC which has a neighbouring councils link at the bottom of their main page – great links to all nearby Councils and Parish…but how do I find out which Parish COuncil I need to contact? No map and the names don’t match the property address!

  30. Meghan permalink

    A good LPA website needs to be easy to navigate where minimum clicks are required to get you to the page you want to see. A good search box is essential. From a planning consultants point of view it is very useful to have an LPA website which allows you to check the progress of a planning application without having to go to the LPA in person. An excellent example is Forest Heath District COuncil’s website.This website allows you to search planning applications and see the plans and documents submitted by the applicant as well as third party and consultee responses – what a difference this makes!. They have even back-dated information for some older applications. This website also benefits from the ‘My nieghbourhood’ section which allows you to search by postcode and find out details about the area i.e. the Councillor for the area, whether its in a conservation area, the bin collection dates etc. Really informative – exactly as it should be. If only other LPAs could follow thier lead.

  31. Bob Thom permalink

    Hi, I like the blogs for the need for discussion on LPA sites and the Malden site re. “Is Planning Approval required”. It seems to me that we are drifting into enthusiastic experiment rather than an integrated system. This all stems from the current culture in planning for subjective rather than objective review. The SI,s state in words what is required for “Planning Review” or acceptable as “Permitted Development”. The PP has a go at defining Permitted Development Projects, many LPA,s have sites saying that you need them to interpret this information. So 240 plus LPA IT Departments get into site design. Some just sell maps (usually OS derived) and tell you status, others as Malden LPA start down the objective route regarding diagrams to determine acceptable Permitted Development. No doubt we will have a host of authors providing objective books interpreting the Subjective SI, quangos, competent persons also doing the same thing. SI,s should be turned into standards, some rationalization of LPA,s websites and integration with PP should be undertaken to reduce the tax burden/rates. We need a reduction of subjective opinion and more a defined objective requirement.

  32. Tom Allbrighton permalink

    The generic PublicAccess systems are a nightmare to use, especially if you’re searching for information from scratch.

    Of the LPAs which I use in the Yorkshire region, by far and away the most accessible is the the most simple (a relatively unknown concept in Planning these days) and that’s Calderdales.

  33. As with many of the comments, most council websits documents uploaded lack any clear referencing. This is most apprant when viewing large proposal where there may be more than 1 set of elevation drawings, Futhermore, when documents are amended the original plans disappear from the website, but the revised plans do not clear indicate the difference thus making it very difficult to identify the differences. I feel that as Council start to load more and more onto websites a clear universal method of labelling should be introduced.

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