Sarah Chilcott, MD at Planning Portal, discusses the future of Approved Documents in an increasingly digital landscape
Following the recent review by the Department for Communities and Local Government, we were asked by PBC Today for our views on the future of Approved Documents. We have republished the interview below.
The Planning Portal has recently launched an online application service for building control. Is publishing Approved Documents also part of the new service?
In fact, we’ve been publishing the current and previous versions of Approved Documents on the Planning Portal site since they were first made freely available online in April 2010. We continue to publish them today because it is critical for our professional users – they know and trust that the information they see on our site will be up to date and accurate and they often come back to check that they are working with the latest versions.
What improvements could be made to Approved Documents to help ensure they keep pace with an increasingly digitised industry?
We welcome the Department for Communities and Local Government review and the proposed changes to the Approved Documents. Some are potentially quite simple though vital improvements; for example, the ability to copy, cut and paste, when creating documents will save a lot of time and frustration.
Others, such as the standardisation and improved clarity of information, are potentially more difficult to achieve. This is especially true if you look at the range of different audiences for the Approved Documents. At the Planning Portal, we have always worked hard to ensure that we use plain language throughout all our communications, and appreciate the challenges a broad customer base can present.
Since our launch in 2002, we’ve been committed to simplifying the planning process and continue to introduce products and services to enhance this. The interactive house is a prime example of where a lot of content that is potentially difficult to understand, is clarified when supported by images. The house, and the other interactive guides, also provide specific information relevant to different developments and further links to planning and building advice.
What are your thoughts relating to the review findings on design and accessibility?
We know that the digital world moves quickly, so it’s not surprising that a number of the review recommendations focus on ease of use and accessibility: better navigation, improvements to search functionality and the ability to access via mobile devices. In our own case, design which responds to different screen sizes was an important element of our website redesign last year, and since the launch we’ve seen that mobile traffic now accounts for over a third of all visits to the Planning Portal.
I was also pleased to see a recommendation for HTML versions of the Approved Documents, which will help users search within and across documents more efficiently. Ultimately, all service users want to ensure their applications are right first time and that they are compliant. Adding context to guidance, clearer information and improved accessibility, whether Approved Documents are accessed online or downloaded and kept offline, should benefit all user groups.
What are the main challenges for these sectors to keep up with, and embrace, technological advances?
I do believe that technology has an opportunity to truly transform the planning and building sectors. It’s something that the Planning Portal has always led on and we continue to do so. There can be barriers such as cost of purchasing equipment, but many of the challenges come from changing the processes and practices of those involved in delivery. Following the recent launch of our building control application service, which caters for both local authorities and Approved Inspectors, we want to work with the industry to consider how it might help to transform other areas such as initial notices or certifications by competent persons, improving collaboration and efficiency and resulting in better delivery for customers.
Application volumes and engagement in general with the Planning Portal building control service have been very encouraging so far and, as always, we welcome feedback on how we can further develop and improve the service to meet the changing needs of the industry and its service users.
This article first appeared in PBC Today.