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Blog - How to Upgrade the Planning Application Service

Over the last 18 months, Future Cities Catapults Future of Planning programme has been exploring opportunities to create a transparent and inclusive planning system by making it more digital and data-driven. A major ‘pain-point’ that our research and engagement has identified is the flow of information between developers to planners and then the public.

Towards the end of last year we ran a three week design sprint in collaboration with Hackney, Southwark and Camden Councils who were keen to develop ideas around how we could improve the planning application service. Matthew Cain, Head of Digital and Data at the London Borough of Hackney said: “We’ve moved the planning application onto the web without rethinking how it could be delivered. This was an opportunity to work collaboratively with other Boroughs to redesign the service around user needs”.

The sprint focused on two interconnected problems: the transfer of development proposal information from developers to local authorities and the way in which these authorities relayed this information to the local community for consultation.

Planning authorities in England receive around 450,000 planning applications a year. A typical household application takes in the range of 4-7 hours to process, yet around 50% of these are returned to applicants as invalid because they lack the right information or require modifications.

The vast majority of these applications are submitted via the Planning Portal, a service set up in 2002 by central government and now run by Terraquest. Whilst the Planning Portal was a huge step forward, today it falls short of meeting the needs of applicants or of planning departments.

One of the biggest issues with the system used today is that it is difficult to tailor to specific local needs and the amount of guidance available to applicants to navigate the process is minimal. The type of information requested is generic and because the validation of submitted information happens after submission, many applications miss out key information, provide irrelevant information or submit blank documents just to get through the system.

Secondly, the system only accommodates the ‘formal’ submission stage of an application. It does not help during pre-application or post decision, where further relevant information is also exchanged. This narrow focus requires applicants having to submit the same information, multiple times, to different people and if any changes are made during the process, the applicant needs to re-submit the application.

Lastly, and most critically, most of the raw data in a planning application is not captured and that which is, is unstructured, making it difficult and time consuming for planning officers to analyse or aggregate the information they receive. For example, Planning Departments will rarely have access to historical data on height of proposals, overall floor space submitted, number of bedrooms, predominant materials, viability or any of the incredibly valuable information contained within the thousands of applications they assess.

These issues lead to delays in housing delivery, create barriers to entry for those wishing to develop, create unnecessary work for planning departments and applicants and repeat work for planning consultants. To overcome them we created a prototype for a new piece of software which could:

Accommodate the whole service journey from early pre-application exchanges to when the proposal is approved;

  • Allow information requested to be tailored by local authorities based on the local policy, and specific local requirements
  • Provide automated information and guidance to applicants to give an early indication of where proposals might not comply with policy and how to address it
  • Allows applicants to modify the application without needing to re-submit it
  • Collect planning application data in a structured way allowing for cumulative analysis and identification of trends
  • Act as a platform for all communication between applicant and case officer

The improved collection of data opens up a second opportunity for public consultation, which we also explored during the sprint.

Today, for the public to constructively comment on development proposals, we need to sift through reams of poorly named, technically written and hard to understand scanned reports and try to visualise what proposals look like from often complicated two dimensional drawings or a small selection of carefully designed visualisations. Policies are written in a quasi-judicial language and in order to influence an application one needs to understand the legal limits of ‘material considerations’ and ‘permitted development’. On top of all this, public comments are often submitted without any knowledge of what others are saying and developers only seeing them at the end of the process. To overcome these challenges, during the sprint, we devised a web-based application that could:

  • Present the information from a planning application in an easy to read and navigate user interface
  • Allows 3D development data to be superimposed on a site
  • Presents relevant policies in an easy to understand way
  • Shows what other have been commenting on and the most popular issues with a development

These prototypes are not meant to be final designs, they need additional design and development work to ensure they can be procured from the market and integrated into existing legacy systems. However, they highlight the benefits of improving the way we collect and use the reams of data planning departments process and the potential efficiency, certainty and quality a more digital planning service could provide.

The process has also shown that bringing those working in the coalface of planning, together with user researchers, designers, data scientists and software developers will create desirable, feasible and deliverable outcomes, creating a clear roadmap for digitization. Dr. Peter Latham, Head of Digital Planning and Housing said, “This is a great example of planning teams taking the initiative, in partnership with the Catapult network planning experts and technologists, to improve service delivery. Better use of data and digital tools has an important role to play in delivering the homes people need, and MHCLG is committed to supporting innovation that can deliver better services and housing outcomes.”

This sprint was the first of a series where we will be deep-diving into some of the areas flagged in our initial phase of user research. Do get in touch if you are thinking about digital transformation in your local planning authority or digitising your products and services in industry. You can watch the final presentations by the local authorities as filmed by David Durrant from the GLA here and download the findings here.

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