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How one planning office went paperless

by on February 2, 2012

We’re always very interested to learn how local authorities are transforming their processes and customer services through new ways of working.

Recently we learned that Doncaster Council’s planning department have worked paperless since 2009.

Reduced budget and resources led them to looking closely at procedures and processes for savings. One outcome was the decision to use technology to achieve efficiencies.

So how does e-planning work at Doncaster? Council planning team leader Carole Sanderson was kind enough to explain some key points:

  • no parts of planning application files are printed and no paper is received in the planning office. All post is received and processed by a corporate scanning team and sent electronically to appropriate staff. Paper applications are also scanned and sent electronically to the planning team for registration and validation, who then index all applications in the back-office system
  • all correspondence throughout the application determination process is done electronically (where possible – some applicants may not provide an email address)
  • council website information and links to the Planning Portal were aligned to encourage online submission
  • the council have a 1APP connector to their back-office (Idox) system which is interoperable with their Anite document management system. All application information is published on their interactive planning register on the website making information open, accessible and transparent
  • to help officers work electronically they each have two large monitors to cross-reference applications and plans and prepare for site visits etc. Officers do not have mobile access to the planning back-office system but they can connect from home

The e-planning effort continues beyond the council offices. The council e-consult with interested parties and worked closely with town and parish councils to introduce this. The majority now receive email notifications of applications.

The council didn’t provide any financial help or computer equipment to parishes but worked with a local IT company which provides second-hand kit. The aim is to stop providing paper plans to parishes altogether from September this year.

Behind all this drive towards e-planning is strong support from senior management and the council is confident that efficiencies and savings can be measured and quantified.

I know that a number of other councils’ planning departments are also now operating paperless and realising the financial and efficiency benefits of e-planning.

Please get in touch with me to share your experiences and thoughts.

  1. Ian Whittaker permalink

    If you are truly paperless as you suggest how does a planning officer deal with a site vist? Do they have to memorise the plans before they leave the office?

    • PortalDirector permalink

      I’ve gone back to Doncaster on this and will report back as soon as I’ve an update.

      • Mike Wilmott permalink

        Did you ever get an update/reply from Doncaster?

      • PortalDirector permalink

        Still chasing I’m afraid.
        Exacerbated by our contact moving on.
        Will keep trying.

      • Any news from Doncaster on how they do site visits without paper plans to refer to? Many thanks.

      • Hi Kenton,
        we’re working with a number of authorities who have also now gone paperless and hope to publish case studies in September.

  2. Kevin permalink

    I was wondering the same thing. How do they take application details on site? Or have the planners each had a memory upgrade? 🙂

  3. A very interesting report of a Council’s progress in this realm. Many thanks – such snippets are very useful in appreciating the changes in Council’s approaches. The paperless approach could well reduce determination times and thus contribute generally to economic activity. It is especially interesting to learn the Council’s support in getting IT resources to Parish Council’s cheaply.

    More of the same type of experiences would usefully inform the world at large, and by sharing experiences assist

  4. Lisa Walton permalink

    In line with some of the other comments I notice the report didn’t go into how the Planning Officer assesses the proposal when out on site, without a paper plan to refer to? Whilst the Council I work for strives to reduce plan/document printing and copying as much as possible a paper file is always made up for the Case Officer. This is particularly important where members of the community don’t have access to electronic plans.

  5. I have two 22″ screens and I still cannot properly examine, comment upon and co-ordinate drawings without printing them out to A1 size. As an architect it worries me that some say they can do this – I simply don’t believe they can do the job properly and within a reasonable time, except on the most simple of drawings.

  6. David permalink

    This would worry me a great deal unless they have considered carefully the need to scan and then display for assessment the submitted documents in a perfect and unadulterated aspect ratio which exactly reflects the submitted paper work.

    I would be utterly amazed if they have been assessing wind energy applications this way as the appropriate assessment of view points requires that the observed media is at exactly the desired size, scale, resolution and aspect ratio so that the photography remains representative. Specific viewing distances to the sheet are required and deviation from those set parameters would result in totaly unrepresentative and distorted depiction of the likely effects – scanning it and then popping it up on a display screen is a ver risky business in that regard if not a recipe for total disaster.

    Moreover as others have already said on site assessment wihout a copy in front of you would be impossible (not to mention irresponsible)…… Maybee they use the applicants submitted paper version?

  7. Pippa permalink

    It would be interesting to know how the planners at Doncaster compare proposed site layout plans with the OS base in order to check that the developer has drawn site boundaries accurately, which can be critical to a development progressing. The traditional method, of course, is to overlay paper plans on a light table (also known as the office window!).

  8. Desmond Maclauchlan Robson permalink

    Wonderful. Have been trying toget past employers to follow your nearly paper less example; for a long time; but no joy. I am an information Masters student. It was nice to read your article. Reading the other comments…iPad is the answer. Down/ upload the various docs.

  9. Paul Richardson permalink

    The LPA in my neck of the woods displays planning application drawings online, but haven’t bothered to enable any way of measuring! Also, they no longer require a scale bar on submitted drawings, so all in all, it’s anybody’s guess. Things were so much more certain with paper copies, when the applicant was responsible for getting the scale right. Now we are at the mercy of the scanning dept at the council. When I casually checked one of my applications the other day on the council’s website, I discovered to my horror that the drawings had been stretched horizontally, making a complete mockery of the proportions of my building. This sort of thing does not give me much faith in online drawings.

  10. Rod permalink

    I support the principal of the paperless office but there seems to be presumption that bacuse the Planning Authority has all the necessary IT kit so will every other stakeholder or interested party. How are parish council’s consulted without receiving a paper copy? Not all parish councillors have IT facilities. Of course Parish Council could fund purchase of relevant equipment but many are too small to cope with this burden.

  11. Jacqueline Johnson permalink

    My local authority has gone paperless. I can understand why but it has created new problems, as others have posted . Yes, our parish clerk doesn’t have to drive round with copies of applications and we don’t have the problem of when he’s on holiday and applications stack up on his doormat. Yes, it’s good we can track comments and internal discussions
    We still cant do a reverse search to find application numbers at a particular address, we can’t compare plans without printing them out in some cases.
    We have a way of scaling plans but it’s difficult when there’s little indication of scale
    My ipad wont download the plans
    We have had problems with the laptop provided by the LA
    It takes a lot of my unpaid time and I find I have to print some of the application out.
    We’ve just got our first large application and it’s a nightmare wrt finding details

    Also while we are discussing this online consultations on core strategies are also time consuming and exclude those who either don’t have computers or have a life!

  12. I have read all these comments. It seems to me that Doncaster are leading the way here. Paper and filing cabinets will one day be a thing of the past. During my career I have witnessed the obsolecsence of the typewriter, the telex, the fax machine and I hope to be around to witness the same for the photocopier and the printer. The ipad and its competitors are already threatening these devices.

    The sooner our planet embraces our developing technologies the better. Books are fab but the kindle is too!

  13. As a Parish Clerk to three parish councils I have been extremely keen to promote this concept with all of members. They have, I am pleased to say, fully embraced the initiative on the basis that in due course everyone will be expected to go paperless so we might as well get on with it now.

    Each of the councils have provided in their past budgeting to provide Lap Top Projector and Screen and indeed have also installed Broadband in their halls. This allows both the planning committees and members of the public to view the application on the screen having first downloaded it there and then from either the Planning Portal or the District Council Web Site.

    I have to say despite the initial resistance, all of the members have been won over on the basis they are in effect able to serve their communities much easier by the regular use of technology.

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