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Paperless planning process – by 2014

by on January 31, 2010

Now that I have your attention, I’d like to pose the question: “What would need to change to make this happen?”
Let’s assume that we are on our way to bridging the digital divide and everybody has broadband. Let’s also assume legislation has been passed that mandates the paperless process.
What next? For example, what IT would LPAs need to enable visitors to view plans successfully in planning offices?
How might developers submit applications for large scale schemes and how might public consultation work?
Could this be achieved in three years? And what would it all cost?
Over to you.
Chris

30 Comments
  1. At the planning and architecture company I work for – Stride Treglown – we’ve been encouarging the submission of applications online since the Portal offered it. The majority of our applications are submitted in this way now. However, with major applications often the process of uploading documents takes too long and its more cost effective to submit in hard-copy instead. Recently we’ve found that ;ocal authorities are also increasingly asking for hard-copies of plans in addition to those submitted online – especially plans above A3 in size.

    My personal opinion is that a completely paperless system would be great, but there are certainly issues to iron out before we get there!

    • PortalDirector permalink

      Thanks Peter, I’ll pass over the shameles plug! and ask you to consider in this hypothetical situation where paper is banned; what would need to happen to make the uploading easier and satisfy the LPA.
      Chris

      • Chris,

        Please can you amend the application forms on the Portal to ask for information about the floor area of the proposed development?

        On the paper application forms the question was asked and the square footage, or even the floor area in metres, gives a very clear method of comparison for all stakeholders and decision makers.

        It allows neighbours information to object or resign to change and local councillors need the information to process the applications on behalf of their voters. Leaving the size to be scaled off a plan by committee members is inviting errors and how can an objection realistically be made, or defended on the grounds of bulk or mass if this information isn’t defined on the application form.

        If bulk and mass are to remain important planning criteria, surely they are important enough to be recorded on the application form. The floor area and height of a building should, in my view be recorded and not scaled from a plan.

        Now many people look at the plans on-line, it is not even possible for them to scale the plans so is important that the data is tabled in the application form and on a multi house site, the floor area of each unit should be given not just a total area for the site.

        It is also very helpful for stakeholders when they are comparing property values too.

        At The Land Office, we need the floor areas to advise clients of the potential of their site in comparison to other schemes nearby, why not list the floor areas and, state whether it is a net or gross area and if it includes the garage, to avoid confusion?

        I don’t understand why this question isn’t on the on-line application forms; please can you investigate and advise me of your findings?

        Regards

        Lance

      • PortalDirector permalink

        Hi Lance,
        the question does appear on the full planning application form but isn’t required by legislation for the householder form.
        We try and keep the number of questions down to the absolute minimum to meet legislative requirements but if you believe this would expediate the process I’ll ask our folks to review.
        Regards,
        Chris

  2. Sorry, couldn’t resist the plug!

    If it was possible to upload mutiple documents via a single web page this would help – especially where there are a particularly large number of documents. It would be interesting perhaps to compare the way document are uploaded via very popular sites like Facebook with the way in which documents are uploaded to the Portal.

    In general, anything which involves less clicking through to a new webpage helps smooth the process. To give a quick example: if you want to remove a document from a draft submission, currently you need to click ‘remove’, then ‘confirm’ and do this with every document you want to remove. But why not just put a tick box next to each item and a single ‘remove’ button at the bottom of the list? Multiple documents can then be removed in one go 🙂

    I know document size is a tricky issue, but raising the 5mb limit for uploading documents, and helping LPAs to adjust to that, would also be essential in my view.

  3. Thanks Chris

    I would have thought it is essential that anyone involved knows the floor area that is to be built. Surely it helps the applicant compare building quotes too, he can more easily compare what his mate’s extension or new house cost to build if he knows the areas.

    Please push for this to be compulsory!

    Can you help my other gripe about internet services from our Government, County Councils and Local Planning Authorities?

    Why is it in some LPA areas I can print copies of planning applications and in others they have blocked the documents so they can be viewed but not printed?

    Also, in Bucks for example I can print a copy of the OS plan free of charge, which is useful for discussing a possible plot with the owner, even though the plan is sensibly an unuseable scale. Also home owners can print these plans to discuss boundaries and all sorts of other domestic issues.

    No such service exists in xxx (removed by Chris), why should this be different between Counties?

    Am I alone in fidning these differences a nuisance when I’m trying to provide a service to land owners across many different counties and LPAs? Who can I lobby to see this changed?

    Any suggestions?

    Lance

    • CADPLAN permalink

      I’m not sure that anyone would really be interested in the floor areas of domestic extensions. Why would they be?
      Re heights and dimensions and scaling off website plans, the answer is simple- put a scale bar on your drawings. North Somerset introduced this requirement last year, if a scale bar isn’t on submitted drawings they add one. To be honest it’s dead easy to add a scale bar to drawings and probably more accurate that leaving it to an LPA to add one.

  4. David permalink

    Chris you’ll probably work out who I am but this is with my private hat on!

    A lot of the issues across LPAs are to do with indexing of documents/plans – which can be fixed now. It takes effort and thought when documents are loaded but it is not technically difficult.

    I’d like to see unformity across the LPAs – dealing with webpages that deliver different information in different orders and different searches and different formats drives me insane. If we can’t impose a single software solution then we need firm standards (Parsol Plus?) with teeth and all applications acessable via the portal.

    There needs to better link between an application and its geography and the issues it raises- weekly list are OK but filtering to find an application by issue or geography is simply too painful or impossible.

    Public consultation needs to be vastly improved with autmatic email notification. Again good indexing which leads to good filtering is key.

    Large documents need to be better indexed where they are loaded in multiple parts. ES are my pet hate, I can figure out what chapter I want to read because the paper index is in part 1 but then which part contains the chapter I want -?? It is not difficult in most back office system to have labels such as ES part 4 chapters 5 and 6 or just ES chapter 5 and 6.

    I think there need to be new webbased software for viewing images such as plans and photomontages that are larger than A3. An example of Web 2.0 thinking is Google Maps and streetview.

    I am becomming less convinced that individual documents and plans are the way to display the information on screen – we may need to move away to a more browser orientated view of information

    • Rosemary Cantwell permalink

      I think you make a very cogent case, especially about Public Consultation needing to be better controlled. At present, the Planning Inspectorate informed me yesterday that it is not possible to place consultees’ documentation online as it takes too long. I replied that with “cloud technology” I believed that this would be resolved.

      Are there any new technologies that will enable printing of plans to accord PRECISELY with what is on the screen? That seems to be the main difficulty at present vis-a-vis plans and construction.

  5. Graeme Perry permalink

    Re Paperless Applications

    I agree that this should be the way forward – The amount of paper generated these days seems to be going out of control. I am an Agent with a duty of care to a Client but I have two (of many) recent discouraging experiences:

    1 The LPA failed to download all of the application documentation and drawings thereby holding processing up and, more seriously,
    2 Some LPAs only have a sub-5mb limit on their e-mail!

    Sort those basic problems out and we can achieve it.

  6. From a former DC officer’s (and systems manager) perspective a paperless planning process requires first and foremost the use of appropriate technology (I’m thinking e-readers/tablets/slates etc).

    Instead of a stack of folders for site visits, a slim document viewer, would be good. I probably don’t mean a Laptop or tablet, something more like an e-reader (think Kindle) but at least A4 in size, waterproof and viewable in full sun light. You should also be able to take hand written notes on it.

    Then you need to think how people might use it, and teach people how to use the technology effectively! I know of at least one rural authority that introduced laptops for officers to take out on site and it completly failed. Partly because they were bulky and also because no system was put in place to maintain their caseloads on the laptop. Add to that, that most people weren’t very computer literate.

    As for viewing at the planning offices PCs are great but a way of viewing large documents (A0/A1) size is a must. Perhaps an interactive multi-touch whiteboard or one of those microsoft coffee table screens! It needs to be slick and easy to use (by that I mean no training required).

    Eventually the adoption of the paperless office will only come about when it is easier quicker and cheaper to view documents the paperless way.

    Some of the technology I trialled (mainly a tablet) was great for me, but totally inappropriate for most other people.

    As to large applications a bulk upload facility is a must, also some LPAs must stop printing documents out only to scan them in again! Agents spend a lot of time making a document look right only to have the LPA do a black and white scan of it even though it was submitted electronically and in colour.

    I think we can get near to a paperless planning process, but 3 years is perhaps to ambitious. It would also need some kind of “Pendleton criteria” and funding to push authorities in the right direction.

    Sorry this such a long reply!

    Regards

    Elliot

    • David permalink

      I have memories of a project called Nomad that was supposed to deliver a tablet that you could load with that days visits and sync updates to the master system when you returned to the office

      • Project NOMAD still appears to be around?
        It had a lot of potential but it really needed funding and focus! I went to a few workshops from them and was inspired but the results always seemed a little to technical for the end user (and required quite a bit of back office intergration).

        http://www.projectnomad.org.uk/nomad_news/nomadnewhome.html

        “Following the statement published in early September 2009, that announced Nomad’s closure from its current home at Cambridgeshire County Council, we are extremely happy to update the community and inform you that Nomad has secured a new future. “

  7. game keeper turned poacher permalink

    Ah, the myth of a “paperless” system (again). Yes, on-line applications systems have a useful role, very useful, but as has been pointed out, its just not practical or sometimes even possible to submit major applications, EIAs, detailed technical reports etc on line. Even if you did, who would want to stare at a computer screen for hours on end going cross eyed trying to read hundreds of pages ot text and large scaled plans on line? Nobody – which is why hard copies are still required and/or printed off for thumbing through at leisure (digital/interactive copies can also be supplied on CD in a more portable format – it doesn’t necessarily have to be on-line). So Planning offices will still have paper files, so too developers, agents and objectors. The “paperless office” is a modern day oxymoron.

  8. Chris

    I recently encountered a problem in submitting an application through the Planning Portal and had to resort to a hard copy application.

    It related to a property which was not on the Post Office post code database, which I found was essential for the portal to recognise it and proceed to accept the application.

    You will have to address this point, among others no doubt, to provide a totally paperless service.

    • PortalDirector permalink

      Hi Richard,
      I’m suprised at this as it is possible to submit an application using either postcode, grid reference or our mapping tool.
      Regards,
      Chris

  9. We already operate paperless excepting those (instead of email) tiresome letters and notices (which we then have to scan and shred) we receive from the LAs. Obviously we have to print final docs for those without Pdf. or CAD.

    KB

    • PortalDirector permalink

      Hi KB,
      Would I be correct to assume you submit drawings and plans on cd for larger schemes.
      Are the LPAs receptive or do you get any pushback.
      Chris

  10. Paperless planning is a fine idea, but let us not forget:

    Broadband is not universal, and in the rural areas is often not available, so the thought of submitting applications and reviewing applications online for those without a fast connection must be considered.

    • PortalDirector permalink

      Absolutely, but for the purposes of this exercise I am imagining that we will all be digital and have superfast broadband by 2014.
      Chris

      • I admire your optimism. I fear that you, along with many other government departments, are ignoring the rural reality that currently exists as identified by the Commission for Rural Communities and the Rural Forums, and no concrete plans are currently in place to deal with them (despite lots of talk about universal 2MB service – which is far from a superfast service). I would hate for the planning system to be part of the rural disenfranchisement.

      • PortalDirector permalink

        Hi Warren,
        I am currently involved in lots of discussions internally about the barriers to 100% take-up of e-services and can honestly say that (at the moment) Government is genenuinely looking for solutions.
        I for one will do the best I can to ensure as few as possible are excluded.
        Chris

      • Thank you for your response. However, in terms of being able to make a planning application, surely no one can be excluded?

    • David permalink

      I don’t think paperless planning would increase the general problems of accessing the planning process from rural areas. Most libraries have computers with broadband.

      Currently to view permissions in an area you have to travel to the nearest large library anyway.

      • It would seem a shame if paperless planning doesn’t attempt to improve rural access to the planning system (libraries are not ideal and few and far between these days), and are of no use to a householder or small practice based in the sticks with no broadband when they want to make an application.

  11. Nick Gillott permalink

    A) Most of the applications I am producing for my client are to County Authorities or Uniitary Authorities. Many of them still require paper copies to send to consultees (as they do not have facilities for document production ?). So to go paperless the consultees (e.g. parish councils/tenants groups) would need to have the correct reader technology too to examine the documents at their leisure.

    B) The way the portal asks for documents and references for them as stand alone pieces of information has led me to effectively produce two ‘documents’ – the paper application which is organised into one piece with a contents page, application form, supporting statement with appendices; and the electronic submission – a pile of documents with descriptie titles, but which do not refer to each other.

    C) Some councils have superb reference systems which allow search by GIS, or by street name. Others have obtuse systems which can only be searched if the application number is known. Best practice needs to be spread.

    D) I would suggest a digital copy service should be available at Council planning desks – £5.00 should cover the cost of cutting a DVD with a set of current application documents on it.

    E) The Councils will need some method of ‘stamping’ and return of approved plans electronically so I can store them electronically without rescanning.

    F) Files are large these days – 5mb is too small. However, secure long term storage is expensive. Even using photgraph compression tools and eg Acrobat (C) resulting files will quickly exceed 5mb. If it was my problem I would get someone to run a project looking at the file type and paper size and set realistic standards to allow automatic compression as the incoming files pass through the portal with no obvious data loss if viewed at the original size.

    • PortalDirector permalink

      Hi Nick,
      LPAs may ask for paper copies but you are not obliged to provide them.
      I understand you may feel it expedient to meet the request but it is your call.
      I believe that the more agents resist the pressure to provide paper the more pressure there will be on LPAs to embrace electronic consultation.
      We have worked extensively with NALC and SLCC to understand constraints at the local level and as a result we believe that this reasoning is something of a smokescreen.

      With regard to the way the Portal asks for documents, this is to enable the system to pass the documents directly into the appropriate place in LPAs back office systems. Saving time and effort redistributing fles manually at the LPA end. (you might be interested in the latest post re multiple upload)

      As for the variance in application discovery I couldn’t agree more.

      Finally, on to file size. This is not an issue for the Portal but LPA firewalls and is an issue we are currently considering. We may for example consider providing a hosted service to LPAs, whereby we store the application and associated data on our e-Consuultation Hub, making the application available to view over the web and squirting the relevant data only to the LPA back office.

  12. Ken Usman-Smith permalink

    Its all feasible and its not about the paperless office, but more about the intelligent documents in workflow that manage themselves and aid productivilty through rules.

    The paper plans will always be needed on site as they remain easier to view and handle, and dropped in the mud cost less than the hardware to replace.

    The trend to use every colour and CAD trick on a plan is driving up storage and file sizes, so dont do it! We just want a plan of the project, the clients impressive copy can be used to underline the agents technical wizardry. Its not going to make a silly scheme any less silly or a good scheme any better.

    Google is adding ‘gadgets’ and mapping options all the time, and I suspect thats where the drive is now as Web 2.00 bites, to do more with this technology for less. And thats a worthwhile driver for reduced overheads, to maximise income benefits when revenues frozen or dropping.

  13. The answer to the question is timely action and money, neither of which exist in the Public Sector at the present. Our economy and the impending election means priorities are elsewhwere.

    I believe every point made so far is valid (including those of Agents/Planning professionals) but LPA’s are under enormous pressures to reduce expenditure. The mish mash of back office products and security arrangements mean so many ‘elastoplast solutions’ are in place and to give every authority a level playing field (Rural and Urban) your talking big bucks.

    The Internet or ‘Cloud Computing’ is a possible solution but only if Central Government funds and mandates the change.
    Otherwise, change is going to take a lot longer and be more expensive in the long run.

    In an age when technology change makes learning in the first year of a degree course vertually obsolete by year four, we need timely action.Otherwise, it’s like trying to hit a moving dartboard blindfolded.

    On a more positive note were about to start using E-hub for the reasons that it’s non proprietary and offers the possibility of attachments or URL’s which gives us some business continuity not present in proprietary systems. So, if you can host something on the internet that does not require downloading documents that would be a positive start.

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