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Telford & Wrekin Council shares advice on how it went paperless

by on October 24, 2012

Telford & Wrekin Council wanted to develop a system to let planning move into the 21st Century.

In other words: a system that had the capability to let officers work in a paperless environment, streamlining the business process and taking on board legislative requirements and mobile working. Similar work was carried out with building control.

Dedicated team members

The council designated staff to work on the project and a project team was set up. Software company MIS worked with Telford & Wrekin Council to drive the project forward and further enhance their software and bring it in line with today’s requirements. (See below for a rundown of integrated software.)

In the planning team a designated member was assigned to work on the project full time, producing a specification, reviewing the complete business process, testing and implementation.

Without dedicating staff to the project it would have been virtually impossible to deliver.

Online applications and e-consultation           

The council’s development management software lets planning applications, provisional enquiries, appeals and enforcement to seamlessly move around different work menus according to the status of the application by using ‘My Applications’, replicating the movement of a paper file. It also caters for non-material amendments and discharge of conditions.

All of the council’s standard consultees, internal consultees and parish/town councils now submit their comments using the planning online system.

Each has their own username and password and when comments are submitted they are automatically uploaded into the back-office system and as application comments on the website.

With neighbour consultations the LPA introduced a PIN with each letter. This lets neighbours submit comments which updates their consultation in the back office system and planning online at the same time.

In fact, the LPA has not had paper files since it went live in March 2010 and those applications that are received by post are scanned and automatically uploaded into the back office system.

Tablet computing

The authority is currently in the process of replacing their tablets and they are happy with the set-up introduced four years ago where the tablet sits on a docking station and is connected to two 22-inch computer screens. The tablet lets the lid swivel and the replacement tablet is now touch screen.

When Telford & Wrekin carried out its hardware evaluation it also evaluated the use of 3G and the use of dongles. However, the view today is still the same as it was when the evaluation was carried out – the inconsistent coverage and speed issues could not be guaranteed for the area covered.

To overcome this issue Telford & Wrekin developed a mobile working solution with MIS that allows applications to be downloaded onto the tablet which allows the MIS solution to be operated offline, letting officers view the same information just as if they were in the office and to view and scale plans as well.

When officers return to the office they synchronise the applications back which also saves any changes made.

The council also has a home working policy which officers are taking advantage of. They use their tablet at home and connect securely by VPN through their broadband connection.

Top tips for other LPAs considering going paperless

Telford & Wrekin provided the following top tips to other LPAs considering their own channel shift plans.

1. Staff and resources

Dedicate the right staff and resources to the project who have the technical know-how and very good knowledge of the business processes and without having to deal with their day-to-day roles

2. IT infrastructure

Make sure you have the right infrastructure and software in place to let you drive the project in the direction you need to get to. If you want to achieve a paperless planning office then you can – provided you’ve left no stone unturned

3. Managing change

Don’t be afraid of change. Planning has stayed a bit static over the years in the way you do things and making changes brings a fresh approach let alone efficiencies and savings. Resistance needs to be challenged but any issues addressed, and this needs to work in line with points 1 and 2.  This change has already delivered a range of efficiencies and service improvements and will be fully realised over the next couple of months.

Software

The council uses the following systems (others from other software manufacturers are naturally available):

  • MIS Headway – planning database and planning online.
  • Resolution – scanning bureau.
  • Rasterex – plan scaling, overlaying, annotating.
  • Digital Certificates – to provide certified electronic communications.

The MIS Headway system also integrates with:

  • Planning Portal – applications are downloaded from the Portal into the back office system adding the plans and attachments into the right areas and allocating a temporary application number and into the appropriate My Apps work menu (see above).
  • Resolution Document Integration – overnight uploads of scanned documents with HTML data directly into back office system.
  • Arc GIS – populates data both ways.
  • Idox TLC land charges – fully automates all planning and enforcement questions.
  • Microsoft Office including full Outlook integration (Calendar – individual mailboxes and public calendars) email and SMS.
  • Digital Certificates – certification of electronic communications.
  • Civica Payment Engine – payment details uploaded to back office system.
  • SQL Express – provides a local SQL database in order to download a local copy of current applications for remote working, locking the server version to view only until uploading from the client is complete.
  • VNC – supplier support to desktop, this is also available via Web.
12 Comments
  1. Penny Stephan permalink

    Unfortunately whilst Telford & Wrekin Council have gone paperless internally, it isn’t quite so beneficial for people the other side of the fence – it needs a lot of tweaks!

    They’re online planning register is very difficult to use with both the address and map searches not having been available for use since the system was adopted(!) Also, even you’re able to access the planning application (via reference number only) half of the documents wont download – we’re still unsure if this is explorer compatibility or varying file formats but its been going on for months. We’ have on numerous occasions had to call the admin department to ask for copies of the consultation comments to be emailed to us.

    https://secure.telford.gov.uk/planning/search-all.aspx

    In addition, even when documents are sent to the Council electronically they do not always appear to be attaching them to their internal system. On a recent planning application, we have had to email the same plan three times and also provide them with a hard copy in the post despite previously acknowledging receipt of it.

    A good example of a fully functioning public access system is Shropshire Councils. Their system not only allows you to search by address, map and reference number but also allows you to create an account and “track” applications – so as and when comments/changes are made to the application, an email notification is made. Most documents are made either directly to the webpage or in word or PDF format. It also dates back a considerable number of years.

    As a comparison: http://planningpa.shropshire.gov.uk/online-applications/

    Just my thoughts…

    • Jovo Radusin permalink

      We are now in the process of testing most of the elements from the planning online system which is currently unavailable with further tweaks to live. We have developed the planning online system from scratch and completely re-worked the development control system, which has certainly challenged us to say the least, and due to the size of the project, it’s being implemented in phases.

      There are compatibility issues if you use older web browsers with pages either not working or displaying properly but because we also allow emails (.msg files) we are working on a fix for these to be viewed online if you don’t have the required software. I guess it’s one which has caught us out!

      We have processes in place for handling electronic and paper plans/documents and I would like to investigate the matter further regarding the issues you have experienced recently as this is certainly not common practice. I would be grateful if you could provide me with the relevant details at planning.control@telford.gov.uk.

      Although we are playing catch up in delivering a full functioning planning online service, things however, are a little different when viewing a planning application. Because we are relatively new with the online service it has meant only applications from March 2010 can be viewed in full but you can see textual data for all applications from April 1974.

      View information a typical planning application (with an appeal) offers:

      https://secure.telford.gov.uk/planning/pa-applicationsummary.aspx?ApplicationNumber=TWC/2011/0834

  2. geoff cross permalink

    Hi, How does paperless work in the toilets? Regards, Geoff

    ________________________________

  3. Whatever paperless system used, in my experience it still does not speed up the actual decision making process and provides yet another excuse for delay ‘I cannot get in to the system: call back later’

    • Jovo Radusin permalink

      What we have done here at Telford & Wrekin is to streamline the process of handling an application from registration to determination removing unnecessary ‘handoffs’. Generally, but with exceptions, if the customer is able to view the application through the Council’s planning online system then the planner is also able to determine the application!

  4. Keith Baker permalink

    There seems to be a glaring omission in that no one has mentioned or emphasised the need for “Backup” and “Disaster Recovery” Paperless starts and finishes with those.
    We have been paperless in our own small way since first using the PP and Submit A Plan to lodge our applications. We still however often get letters rather than emails from LAs despite or explaining we operate “paperless”
    Paperless is undoubtedly the future, it’s not really very complicated, a PC replaces the filing cabinet, (Folders on the computer replace the folders of papers and shortcuts replace technical information brochures, data sheets etc etc) and email replaces letter post. Obviously you need the Internet and it is simpler if CAD has replaced the drawing board, but even that is not essential as drawing film can be scanned to pdf.rather than printed. We have acheived paperless without any special software. Only the Backup and Recovery is different.

    • Jovo Radusin permalink

      As part of the infrastructure we have Microsoft DPM in place, any changes we make are dynamically backed up. In addition we have fully automated server backup in line with industry standards. The biggest problem we face is not the lost of data but system downtime.

  5. CHRISTINE WILLIAMS permalink

    I have had alot of problems with the T&W e-planning sytem – I have even had to set up a special email address just to communicate with T&W because I am told my regular Comany email is treated as spam by their central computer – and I agree that they need to really work on their e-register as it is extremely poor and difficult to use. Another issue is that as an agent I have not been kept informed of validation of applications, not sent site notices nor decisions – even though they claim that their e-records show that I have been sent these ‘papers’. The number of ‘postal’ items that they have lost internally – even though I have hand delivered them is beyond belief – but the front line staff are genuninely trying their best to cope. Please Telford – get the basics right before you embark on any more ‘improvements’!

    • Jovo Radusin permalink

      Interesting point you make regarding your regular company email address which perhaps explains why you haven’t been receiving our electronic correspondences. I will investigate this matter further with our IT department as the issues are not related to planning online.

      We have been experiencing post issues being based in different buildings, which is not an excuse, which we have now addressed.

      Planning online has reached the point of testing the final elements and I expect the electronic register to be in place by the end of the year. I just might regret saying that now!

      • Bob Thom permalink

        By its very nature, windows has facicilities to use that to an origintor are an advantage and to a recipient equate to a virus eg your IT department for security of its assetts will only automatically allow the content to be saved to its own drives. If copied to another system, that system see,s a message trying to write to an external drive, it calls that a virus. Many company websites have all manner of add ons, thus for facilities like T&W it needs a clean address to correspond with. This is a simplification but its usually the explanation in my experience in a number of cases, keep one adress without any add ons, it helps, until you use it for another T&W which attaches an addon to the clean address, solution don’t use the internet?

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