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Smarter Planning: Advice on working with the 5MB document limit

by on November 26, 2012

I’d like to share with you some advice from our account management team on best practice for preparing electronic planning applications – a key part of our Smarter Planning scheme.

In workshops and training sessions with planning professionals (and on this blog) an issue that comes up frequently is the 5MB size limit for uploading supporting document files (although there is no limit on the number of files).

I know this is a bone of contention for many of you but I want to focus on ways of working around the size limit rather than having the argument again about why it is there. There’s a discussion on the subject here.

When large documents, particularly reports like environmental impact assessments, have to be uploaded the size limit is an issue. Professionals tell us they either split the report into smaller sections, or they post or deliver it on a CD, or even as a paper copy.

Fortunately, there are ways to deal with the size issue.

Even with the largest of reports it is invariably images which are the problem. You can get thousands of pages of text in a Microsoft Word or other document within a 5MB limit.

Fortunately, if the report is created in Microsoft Word it is pretty straightforward to apply compression to all the images in a document in one go.

This feature also saves you a lot of time having to re-size or compress images before you insert them into the document in the first place.

We have some detailed guidance here and Microsoft Word (and similar products) will also offer guidance in their help section.

The quality of the text remains identical to the original, and images will look identical viewed on-screen.

Compressed images with lots of white space and single block colours like maps, plans, charts and diagrams also remain almost identical when printed, and although there will be some reduction in the quality of photographs they are usually fine for the purpose of the report.

Once finalised, the document can then be saved in the preferred PDF format – which may reduce the file size even further – before uploading to the Planning Portal.

Scanned images such as third-party plans and drawings can be more difficult to deal with, but saving in JPEG (.jpg) format first, and then in PDF format will again work very effectively with these types of images.

Further tips for compressing documents:

  • Experiment with settings when not under time pressure. Check the print quality that various compression settings produce. If in doubt check the quality with the planning authority before submitting the application.
  • Always make a copy of your original file before applying compression. Compression is not reversible.
  • Send a copy of the Planning Portal guidance to third party consultants so that they can apply the compression before sending you the final report. (You may want to ask them to send you an uncompressed version on CD too, so you have a copy for your records).

Hope this helps.

This is the first in a new series of articles outlining good practice and tips in support of our Smarter Planning initiative. We’re running a similar series of articles with LPAs.

  1. Simon Evans permalink

    Excellent advice as usual.

    Sadly, even after applying multiple layers of compression and conversion (if you can be bothered with all that!), you can still end up with documents over 5Mb.

    Another option may be to use a file sharing service like Dropbox to transfer the file. a much better option than email, for example. Also, if you update a file stored in Dropbox you can ensure that everyone always has access to the latest version.

  2. Melanie White permalink

    Is anyone else having a problem opening the ‘detailed guidance here’ link. I’m getting a ‘bad encrypt dictionary’ error in Adobe Acrobat.

  3. “Detailed guidance” opens OK. Adobe programme update recommended.

    Open Office, and Corel Word Perfect both enable the compression and form of pdf images to be adjusted when you export your document to a pdf file. Maybe other word processors do the same. jpgs with the compression slider about half way along should be fine.

  4. Scott Johnson permalink

    The problem with your detailed guidance is that it says to use CutePDF. This programme cannot preserve hyperlinks within documents, and therefore one loses vital navigation ability. In 2012 and onwards, we really need to be using full Adobe so that these documents can be easily navigated on the Internet. Either that, or the makers of pdf writers such as CutePDF really need to catch up on functionality.

    What I therefore really need is some detailed guidance on using Adobe 8.0 or higher to reduce file sizes, as I often struggle to get anywhere near to 5Mb!

    • John Danahay permalink

      That’s a good point Scott. In our training workshops we actually do recommend Adobe Professional if you want to retain full control of the formatting of your documents, although for most basic conversion tasks Cute PDF and other similar products will do the job. We need to have a look at updating our guidance to reflect this PDF ‘functionality’ point though. I must admit I am not that familiar with Adobe 8 but I can check if we have a copy in the office, investigate further and possibly add some more specific guidance. Any feedback on this topic from other users of Adobe 8 would be much appreciated.

      John Danahay – Account Manager, Planning Portal

      • Scott Johnson permalink

        Always glad to help! I’m glad to know that about your training. The problem with full Adobe Pro for me is that I’ve never had any training in it, and haven’t yet found a decent concise and reliable guide on shrinking pdfs – particularly when pdf’ing CAD drawings and the like.

  5. S Patel permalink

    Large documents like reports are now made in desktop publishing software like InDesign and it gives option to control the size of PDF. It still doesn’t help to compress it into 5mb size. PP should use FTP sites to upload and download files larger than 5mb

    • A number of our users have suggested using ftp sites, Dropbox etc but I have to point out the problem is not with the Portal.
      We are not restricted and can take any size.
      The problem is currently with LPA firewalls and the restrictions placed on them.
      We are working with LPAs to find a way around the problem.

  6. Adrian Dennis permalink

    I was a little surprised to see that even a 5Mb file size is considered okay as I have found some authorities can’t seem to handle files above 3Mb. Until a year ago I worked for a London Authority which rejected files, even supplied on CD that exceeded 3Mb, although I was sure that they could have managed 5Mb if they tried. I think some of the problems were with reliability of loading data using their IT service provider. I often took the CD’s home to breakdown to 3Mb files if at all possible, either by splitting large pdf documents with something like Nuance’s PDF Pro program or compressing them further. These facilities just don’t exist within the LPA offices…
    The other issue that is common with LPA’s is that many still only use Word 95/2003 and some can’t handle Office 2010 files. As most seem to be on NT/XP operating systems, anything sent from Windows 7 64bit programs can be a risk.

  7. Michael Stephenson permalink

    I use Adobe Acrobat Professional 9 to reduce file sizes and have to say it’s not the most useful piece of software for this particular task. The first problem is that there are 2 different options, ‘reduce file size’ and ‘pdf optimiser’ which appear to work independently of each other.

    I run reduce file size first and this makes a small difference. If I need to reduce it further i’ll then run pdf optimiser as well. This usually works but sometimes works in the opposite way and actually makes the file size bigger! If this happens I’ll then use the reduce file size option again. It’s a somewhat long-winded process and switching back and forth between the two options makes it feel more like pot luck than an exact science.

    As an LPA employee I’m restricted in terms of what file sizes I can upload so if I still can’t get a document near to 5mb I end up splitting it into multiple parts (which brings its own problems and can be rather time consuming). Ideally some software would exist that could auto-split documents according to file size but I haven’t found anything so far.

  8. Francis Colella FFC Landscape Architects permalink

    To compress JPEG files there is a useful free programme
    called Fileminimiser from the Balesio website- adjust the
    compression settings for better print images but compression levels
    are very good

  9. Keith Baker permalink

    There is a very simple solution that causes virtually no extra work for anyone. Simply write a word doc and name it whatever file it is you want it to replace, say “EA Data”. Write

    the word doc to say EA Data file exceeds PP Limit and will be emailed direct under separate cover. Save the word doc as a pdf and attach it to the PP Application. Email the file that exceeds the PP Limit to the LA. Job Done.


  10. PDF Creator ( installs as a virtual printer driver and allows you to create PDFs from any printable source (WP, graphics software etc). It is free and provides options for resolution and compression of images. However, do be very careful during installation, as by default it will attempt to install search bars into your browser – so check every step of the install options carefully. Apart from that, it is an excellent choice if you can’t afford the “Pro” solutions.

  11. I just looked atthe PDF Creator Forum and notice the following recent exchange between a user and the developer.

    “The new PDF Architect is MUCH more invasive with how it wants to put toolbars everywhere. Since it shows up in the installed programs list as a separate program and there are no options for it in the PDFCreator installer it should either be its own distinct installer or allow for setting the options for it as part of the PDF Creator install.”

    “Hi, the PDFArchitect doens´t exactly install toolbars, but add-ins. We are planning to make these optional during setup, if you need any instuctions on deactivating them in the meanwhile, feel free to ask.”

    This is not a good sign – it should never be necessary t ohave to ask how to uninstall stuff you never wanted in the first place! So, use with caution. It’s a shame – techncially it’s a very good piece of software.

    Incidentally, as described above, MS Word/Excel/PPT will output PDFs directly (using the XPS extension, I think). Generally, text is not a problem, images are. So beware fancy image-based logos in your headers, which effectively place an image on every page of your document.

    The competent graphics programs (Adobe suite, CorelDraw, Serif Drawplus) have considerable control over PDF export resolution and compression, so it is not difficult to get very good looking A3 documents (plans, photomontages etc) to under 5Mb.

    • Scott Johnson permalink

      I like that Fileminimiser recommendation – will have to try it.

      I’m still not keen on the free PDF creators being discussed. Again, this is 2012 (nearly 2013), and we are still looking at products which don’t have the basic functionality of preserving hyperlinks, bookmarks, etc. within documents. The only way I know of ensuring good navigation within documents is to use full Adobe Professional, and this isn’t very good (or at least not easy to use) at compression.

      Accessibility is key when we are talking about 100s of pages, and different inter-connecting documents. We should be encouraged to make documents more functional, not less so.

      If we just want to compress a file, then yes, there are many ways. But what if we want to compress a file without losing functionality?

      (Incidentally, a 2Tb internal hard drive is about £60. That’s 400,000 5Mb files.)

  12. Scott, I accept your point about the importance of hyperlinks etc. I have just a run a few tests on a 100kb Word Doc, 13 pages, 1 logo and one image (a signature).

    – Save As PDF from within Word, ‘standard’ export gives a 296kb PDF
    – Save As PDF from within Word, ‘minimum’ export gives a 254kb PDF and the images look obviously compressed (JPG artefacts visible)
    – Print to PDF Creator (older version 1.2), 70% JPG compression, gives 97kb PDF with compression just visible if you zoom into the logo. All PDFs are not created equal and this is why I still use an older version of PDF Creator, as it often achieves good compression with minimum image degradation.

    All three PDFs maintain hyperlinks to external websites. I don’t know what would happen with internal links such as bookmarks, contents links etc – this was only a quick test!

    I’m not a great fan of Word, I use it out of necessity to communicate with others (WordPerfect is far more controllable) but hyperlinks are clearly exportable.

    CorelDraw definitely allows creation of internal/external hyperlinks, which are transferred to PDF exports. There are also many solutions for splitting/combining PDFs, which are free, or don’t cost as much as the industry standard, but that is perhaps a subject for another thread.

  13. Karen Callery permalink

    Not forgetting the other reason for keeping to the 5mb or less sized files is because not all consultees that view the plans and reports have good broadband access and in some parts of the UK & Wales there are still rural area’s that do not have broadband at all.

    Karen Callery – Account Manager, Planning Portal

    • Scott Johnson permalink

      A very good point. However, I suppose the counter-point to this is that this is why paper copies are generally still required, as well as advertising where these documents can be viewed and during which hours. (?) It is not easy – at least half the world is moving forward, whilst a proportion of the public and other stakeholders are getting left behind.

      Another counter-point – there will always be ‘hard to reach’ groups. That does not necessarily mean that we compromise on quality for the ‘easy to reach’ groups, surely? We just think of more effective ways to reach those other groups.

  14. Keith Baker permalink

    When it becomes quicker to print or burn to disk or dongle and deliver, it is not very smart to keep on expending time trying to compress to the detriment of quality. This is the 21st century and there is no technical reason why anyone cannot upload or download files larger than 5MB. I suggest efforts should be made in both directions, The file size kept to a minimum (when writing/compiling) to retain purpose and legability/cross reference. And LA and consultee hardware/software infrastructure to support whatever is then necessary The largest files we frequently encounter are FR Hazard Data from the EA. Which unless we (or our client) buy a licence for each document at £50.00, we are prohibited from altering.

  15. Karen Callery permalink

    I tend to agree with you Keith, condensing reports should be targeted at source. If enough of you request this whenever you purchase a survey, then there would be no reason for files to be compressed and thus is a seamless transition all the way through to the end. Perhaps those of you that submit these rather large surveys and reports are forgetting that you are paying customer’s too?
    Why not give it a try and let us know how you get on?

    Karen Callery – Account Manager – Planning Portal

  16. Keith baker permalink

    It occurs to me. In that the PP have the application files stored (currently for two years I think) on the PP (hard drive/disks/backup), why do the LAs not just use hyperlinks from their websites to the PP rather than downlod the files and host them. If they all chip in a bit we could have a national rather than local planning register, simply by the pp retaining files for perpetuity rather than the current two years.Think of the savings that would make.

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