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Lessons learned from a paperless parish

by on June 5, 2014

Portal account manager Robin Vaissiere recently attended an event for parish councils who have made – or are thinking of making – the move to paperless working. These are his thoughts from the event.

 

Persuading town and parish councils to work electronically is still one of the main barriers to LPAs going paperless.

While many LPAs have managed to reduce printing of planning applications submitted online via the Planning Portal down to a minimum of one copy for internal reference, many are still having to print more copies to send to their parishes for consultation.

Recently, the Portal was invited to present at an event organised by Bath & North East Somerset Council Development Management Team (BATHNES) to encourage other local town and parish councils to engage in online consultation.

The aim of the event was to discuss the benefits and barriers of using technology to present planning application information to parishioners on-screen at local planning committee meetings. The organisers also demonstrated how to use the council’s integrated online comments facility to submit consultation responses.

Dunkerton Parish Council was the first BATHNES parish council to present planning application information electronically on-screen at planning committee meetings.

While this move is key to reducing costs and improving efficiency for the planning authority, Dunkerton parish council chairman Martin Robinson pointed out that it is important to identify the benefits for the town or parish councils.

Martin confessed to not being the most IT-literate person when he first looked into using technology at committee meetings. However, in a short time he has become very proficient in preparing the appropriate information for display and discussion.

He demonstrated how the equipment could also be used for other parish council business, such as crime prevention talks, neighbourhood planning meetings and flooding assessments. The tool could be further enhanced by incorporating photographs of site inspections, Google Earth views, local plan images and even video footage.

The parish council has also taken full advantage of the technology to ensure that all parish business is fully transparent by displaying all parish meeting minutes and accounts on-screen during council meetings.

The BATHNES Town and Parish Council event included some valuable roundtable sessions to discuss the benefits and barriers of working electronically and raised some useful points that perhaps have not previously been appreciated as important issues for town and parish councils.

Parishes don’t like having to store past application documents – these often have to be kept in the clerk’s or other parishioner’s garage, loft or conservatory. This takes up a lot of space, causes worry about documents getting damaged/spoiled and individual files can be difficult to find as required.

Dunkerton is now paperless. The parish links to the information already stored in the BATHNES online planning application register and this removes the need to receive or store mountains of paper locally – freeing up valuable space in the conservatory.

It is possible for parishes to present planning application information in real-time using a live internet connection and submit your council’s response online at the end of the meeting. However, Dunkerton advised it is easier to prepare the appropriate documents in advance by downloading them. Also the parish prefers to consider and refer to local and national planning policy to support responses agreed during the meeting and submits this online later.

The parish has saved money by taking full advantage of email to communicate to parishioners and committee members alike.

Following the event, BATHNES operations manager Sarah Jefferies said the council had created a dedicated area on its website to support town and parish councils moving to electronic working.

This resource records some of the points and issues raised during the event and provides a helpful reference point for town and parish councils and also planning authorities who want to press ahead with e-consultation.

The presentations for the event can be found on this page, which also demonstrates how Dunkerton Parish Council has used this media to present planning applications and enhance the information provided and also examples of early work on developing a neighbourhood plan.

As this is an important issue in our work to help town and parish councils and LPAs to become paperless, this may provide some good information that others can use.

 

If your parish or authority has made the move to paperless working please share your advice in the comments section below.

 

 

11 Comments
  1. In Stoke, we have only required one copy of the application for at least 5 years (probably more). I have asked the Portal on several occasions if they would alter the forms that state that “3 copies plus the original” are required but they say that it is not possible to do this for one authority and not all. Shame we are not encouraged by the Portal in this regard in our efforts to become paperless.

    • Joanne White permalink

      I agree, we quite often receive 3 copies when we only require 1. Could the portal not have a link to which councils only require 1 copy?

  2. I fully understand the drive for paperless applic’s, however there are still some of us who find the paper procedures more practical when dealing with (often elderly) residential and smaller business customers on minor developments. If you can present a paper application ready to submit you are in a good position to get paid both design and LA fees on the spot. The electronic process makes getting fees from clients to LA’s a far more vulnerable and problematic scenario and can also increase design fees turnover to a point where VAT would need to be charged……….which on these projects can make the difference of not getting the job. By all means progress with paperless, but do not withdraw paper applications, as the implications are greater than one might immediately think for smaller businesses.

  3. Tricia Kelleher permalink

    Cheshire East Council only send Parish Councils a planning application form and plans out when the application is classed as a major application. We have been liaising with Parish Councils for a couple of years now. We did receive complaints at the beginning but we seem to have overcome these now. We suggested that Parish Councils download applications to a memory stick so everything can be viewed. We have many rural areas and all are on board now. We had a hotline whereby the Parish Councils could actually speak to someone when this new procedure started and we seemed to have built up a good relationship with them. This is saving us alot of time and money.

  4. Anonymous permalink

    Our district council no longer routinely sends paper copies of applications to any consultees, including town and parish councils. If an application is very large or complex they will send a paper copy on request. However, very few such requests for a paper copies have been made (approx 3-5 per year). I have been amazed at the ingenuity of some local councils in finding solutions for their specific issues. For example, some councils don’t view applications during the parish meeting at all but assign a small number of Councillors to view the plans online in their own time, visit the site, discuss with neighbours then report back at the council meeting with a recommendation. Others, when considering large or complex applications, simply ask the applicant to attend a site meeting or parish meeting and bring along a paper copy for everyone to look at. Some councils with large numbers of applications to consider don’t view all of them but rather review the list of new applications and only look at those which a member wants to discuss. By projecting plans onto a screen or wall the public also benefits since all in the meeting are looking at the same plan at the same time which reduces confusion. And those councils who are able to view applications live from the internet also benefit from being able to view neighbour comments during the meeting or open Google street view to look at the application site and so reduce the need for site meetings. A few have even started to submit the parish comments online via the website whilst in the meeting. In this way every one knows what they are voting on.

    • C Devlin permalink

      We are a rural parish and do not have any link to the internet at our village hall, paperless for us would be a nightmare as we would either have to look into investing in broadband at a location we only use over other month as well as arranging for a computer to be on site that would be big enough or reasonable enough to use if we had any questions on the planning for the meeting or move venue to someone’s house, which is not at all practical….

  5. Councillor permalink

    From the point of view of a Councillor I find it much easier and it cuts meetings down considerably in length. As well as a paper copy attached to the agenda, we have links to each plan being considered, on our website. This gives us the opportunity to view the plans in the comfort of our own homes, ahead of the meeting, where the same plans are projected onto the screen via laptop and projector. Councillors are encouraged how to do it (I refer to it as their homework) and are trained how to do it, if needed. It gets rid of the need to pass enormous sheets of paper, often not needed, round the table, which can take forever on the night. This way you can make your own notes at home and just view the necessary (or requested) pages on the screen. Altogether so much easier and quicker.

  6. Jovo Radusin permalink

    At Telford & Wrekin Council we have been paperless for over 4 years and all consultees (internal, external, parish/town councils and PINS (except for inquiries)) are and have been completely electronic, including majors. Responses are also received electronically and are automated. There is no paper copy within the office either. A lot of time and effort was spent to achieve this including system changes, procedures and processes, however, it proves 4 years later that it’s still working.

  7. I’m all for electronic working but one of the major constraints is viewing large plans on a laptop sized screen, let alone a tablet. Also plans can only be scaled from original size, so if an A2 plan is printed off onto A4 paper (which will usually be the case outside of LPA offices) there is a problem.

  8. andrew towlerton permalink

    As a working Planner and a part-time Parish Clerk with some experience in this area, I can say that this is a very much a live issue is the parish council sector.

    There are certainly benefits with the approach, and can point to many examples where it is working well however there are some where this is less so and continues to be a thorny issue.

    Some of the key reasons why it is not working as well in some areas is resources, capacity and skills within some parish councils, but also not all parish councils have the facilities to be able to either print copies of plans for consideration at their meetings, or have equipment to display plans electronically i.e. via laptop and projector and some are located in areas with limited broadband connectivity. This is especially an issue for smaller parish councils with limited budgets, many of whom may only be notified of a very limited number of planning applications in their area.

    I am also aware of a number of local planning authorities that have struggled to keep their planning portal up to date.

    Where it has worked well where its introduction is well planned, communicated, supported (including training) and adequately resourced by the Local Plan Authority, where this has not been the case it has struggled.

    Some good/best practice in this area might be helpful.

    Thanks

    Andrew Towlerton MRTPI
    Clerk to Hellaby Parish Council

  9. Philippa Weightman permalink

    I have been struggling to keep my office paperfree for some time now, and find the ingenuity of the local councils here make interesting reading! I would endorse Paul Barkley’s comments about the difficulty of accessing A2 or even A1 plans on screeen, which to my mind one main barrier to receiving or disseminating them electroncially. The other, for a small parish council such as ours is the cost of buying projector, screen, etc. How did other councils overcome this? Grants? A hike to the precept?

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