Planning Advice Note 70: electronic planning service delivery

Planning Advice Note (PAN) 70 explains how new technology can improve the delivery of the planning service.


Casework Recording Systems

17. All planning authorities should continue to develop their internal development control casework tracking and monitoring systems. A range of systems are available, which vary in the platforms they use, price and functionality, particularly Geographic Information Systems ( GIS) integration and web enablement. In general, planning casework systems are used to:

  • record information on applications, including the site boundary;
  • handle enquiries, investigations, complaints, appeals and enforcement;
  • issue letters and information;
  • access information on customers, cases and site history;
  • monitor performance and collate management information; and
  • review and allocate staff case loads.

18. These systems have an essential role in monitoring the use and effectiveness of planning policies over time, thus helping improve policy formation.

Online Casework Information

19. Planning authorities hold information about applications for their own use. Much of this information is of interest to the wider public, customers and stakeholders of the planning system. A number of authorities have therefore allowed access to planning casework information on computers at their reception areas. Others have gone a step further and developed systems that give direct access to relevant development control casework information via the internet. These online systems are popular with applicants and agents as they enable them to keep track of progress with applications. They also enable citizens and businesses to find out themselves what is happening in an area, reducing the amount of time staff spend dealing with general enquiries, and ensuring that information is accessible, open and transparent.

20. Online systems should show the following information for every application:

  • name of the applicant, and applicant's address where no agent is used;
  • name and address of any agent;
  • date of the application;
  • address of the application;
  • description of the proposal;
  • the decision by the planning authority;
  • any appeal decision;
  • type of application, such as listed building consent;
  • application reference number;
  • current status;
  • planning authority case officer;
  • the relevant Community Council;
  • the relevant Ward; and
  • important dates, such as committee dates.

21. Ideally the online casework system will allow property searches by street name, post code or through an interactive map base. This enables people to quickly find the planning casework information they are interested in. Looking to the future, planning authorities are encouraged to develop systems that electronically notify people of applications within specified locations.

22. Planning authorities need to be confident that their casework data is reliable before allowing it to be accessed online. Data cleansing of back office systems can be resource intensive, but inaccuracies can undermine a casework system. Codes and abbreviations may need to be amended to help users of online services understand what is meant.

Case Study 1: Stirling Council has developed a system that allows access by the public into the 'live' planning casework database. It provides a range of information, including application details, important dates, applicant details, agent details and associated documents. It allows users to search for a particular planning application and includes an online representations form. The system went live in February 2003 and has already received acclaim from community organisations for the greater accessibility and transparency it brings to the development control process.

Displaying Applications Online

23. The Scottish Executive encourages planning authorities to display planning applications online. This should include all relevant documents such as plans, drawings, transport, environmental and other assessments and supporting statements. Where it is already available, this service has proved to be very popular with councillors, citizens and businesses who no longer need to travel to view applications. It is particularly useful in rural areas where the travel distances are greatest. It provides access 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so users can view proposals at a time that suits them. This service also allows statutory and non-statutory consultees to view applications online and may save the effort and expense of copying applications and distributing them to interested parties.

24. At present this online service is generally achieved by scanning paper based applications, which can be resource intensive. As planning authorities start to receive applications online, however, the need for scanning will reduce because applications will already be electronic files.

25. Each planning authority should decide how long planning applications ought to be made available online - some may want to remove the applications once the decision has been made, others may consider it appropriate to leave applications online to minimise requests for file viewing after a decision has been made. If for any reason plans, drawings and other documents associated with a planning application are removed from an online casework system this should be made clear to users and alternative arrangements for viewing set out.

Case Study 2: East Lothian Council scans in all its planning applications, links them to a workflow management system and places them online. The software provider that the council uses has an online 'which form?' calculator, that can help applicants determine the form(s) they need to complete, and a planning fees calculator, which provides an indication of the charge applicants can expect to pay.

Case Study 3: Shetland Islands Council has developed its own system to allow users to view case details and see planning application documents and drawings as Portable Document Format ( PDF) files. The resolution of scanned images has been kept low to cope with the slow telephone connections. Integration of the website with a geographic information system has facilitated online searching. Details of planning decisions, including conditions or reasons for refusal are displayed, which is particularly useful for objectors and consultees. They intended to carry out most consultations by email in the near future.

Online Planning Register

26. Planning authorities are required by law to keep a planning register, which must be made available for public inspection 1 . An electronic planning register may be able to link with data held on a casework information system, but it should be clear to users that they are viewing the official planning register. Where the planning register is kept electronically, planning authorities need to ensure that the information can be accessed and reproduced on paper if required. If the planning register is available in electronic and paper format, it is important that both versions contain the same information.

27. Circular SODD 21/1984 recommends that planning authorities keep a non-statutory planning register for Notices of Proposed Development. Government departments will warn planning authorities if for security reasons all or part of the notice should not be made available for public inspection or entered into the register, either in paper format or electronically. The Executive intends to remove Crown immunity from planning control, and planning legislation and guidance will be produced in due course to address the handling of information involving national security sensitivities.

Online Weekly List

28. The non-statutory weekly list is a record of all validated applications received by a planning authority within a seven day period. It is generally an extract from the planning register which is used to inform citizens, businesses and organisations such as community councils. All planning authorities should provide their weekly list online, and include the following information:

  • name of the applicant, and applicant's address where no agent is used;
  • name and address of any agent;
  • date of the application;
  • address of the application;
  • description of the proposal;
  • type of application, for example listed building consent;
  • application reference number;
  • planning authority case officer; and
  • likely method of determination, such as delegated.

29. Since the weekly list has strong resonance amongst users of the planning service, where planning authorities develop an online casework system, it is recommended that they either continue to provide a weekly list or provide a mechanism for interactively creating a report which replicates the weekly list.

Online Application Forms

30. Most planning authority homepages in Scotland already provide planning application forms online. The Executive encourages planning authorities to make their full range of application forms available online. Providing these forms online reduces the need for individuals to contact the planning authority and have forms sent out by post, saves staff time, cuts postage costs and speeds up the planning process.

31. There are different ways to place planning application forms online, but the most simple is to make them available as Portable Document Format ( PDF) files. PDF software allows the creation of forms with text boxes, buttons, check boxes, combo boxes, list boxes and signature fields. This reduces the need to complete the forms by hand or with a conventional typewriter. For an example see the Scottish Executive Inquiry Reporters Unit ( SEIRU) online appeals form.

Online Application Submission

32. A number of planning authorities are in the process of establishing systems that allow forms to be completed online and then submitted electronically to the authority with plans and documents attached. Online intelligent forms allow validation of the information entered, which helps reduce the number of errors. Online submission enables data to be transferred automatically to back office casework systems, minimises manual data entry and reduces the need to scan documents.

33. In the white paper Your Place, Your Plan , the Executive announced its intention to examine the feasibility of developing standard application forms and making them available online. The introduction of standard forms may require changes to the Planning Act, the GDPO and PAN 48 on Planning Application Forms. The Executive is currently examining the feasibility of developing online standard planning application forms.

Online Payment of Planning Fees

34. Software providers have developed fee calculators that guide applicants through a series of questions that establish the level of planning fees. This facility can increase consistency in fee calculation, prevent duplication of effort and ease the implementation of fees level changes. The Executive is investigating the feasibility of adding a planning fees calculator to its planning homepage.

35. A range of companies can provide secure online payment facilities using credit or debit cards. Many councils are developing online payment facilities on a corporate basis. Some planning authorities have used these systems to allow applicants to pay their planning fees online, thereby reducing the need for applicants to send in a cheque or pay at reception. All planning authorities are encouraged to develop this kind of electronic fee payment option. In doing so, they need to ensure that systems are in place to allow planning fees to be refunded where necessary. Additionally, the payment of planning fees is a useful way to authenticate the identification of applicants.

Online Location Plan Production

36. Individuals should be able to create a location plan for a planning application online. Most planning authorities offer a location plan production service, although it normally takes a few days before the location plans are available for use. A number of commercial services enable people to purchase location plans online. Some allow people to annotate the location plans online, others simply provide basic location plans, which can be annotated on the client's computer. It may be easier, and more cost effective, for planning authorities to link to the website of commercial providers of location plans, rather than developing this service inhouse.

Online Representations

37. Most planning authorities already accept representations on planning applications by email, provided that the correspondent includes a full name and postal address. The Town and Country Planning (Electronic Communications) (Scotland) Order requires that name and postal address information is included with email communications to enable planning authorities to establish the identity and location of each representation. At present, most planning authorities notify individuals or groups who have made representations of the decision by post. In the future, where parties choose to use electronic communications, and provided they include a postal address for identification, planning authorities will be able to notify them of decisions by email.

38. Planning authority websites are encouraged to provide guidance on what is, and what is not, a valid planning issue, information on how representations are dealt with, and advice on how name and postal address information is handled. They should also provide an email address where representations can be submitted.

39. Email representations should be treated in the same way as representations sent by post. All representations should be acknowledged and those submitting them advised that their comments will be open to public view. The practice of making representations available for public inspection varies between planning authorities. The Executive's white paper Your Place, Your Plan states the intention to pursue the proposal that representations be made publicly available. Planning authorities who make representations available online need to ensure peoples' identities are protected. They should be aware that they could be held legally responsible for the content of their website and should have procedures in place to ensure the removal of obscene, illegal or defamatory comments. The Executive's intends to issue guidance on making representations available for public inspection. Planning authorities also need to ensure that they accord with their council's policy on disclosure of information.

40. We encourage planning authorities to develop online systems that allow users to comment directly on an application they are interested in via an electronic form. This can help structure representations and ensure the correct information is provided. Planning authorities are encouraged to develop systems that enable these representations to be automatically uploaded into back office casework systems and for the sender to receive an automated confirmation receipt.

Online Consultation

41. The White Paper 'Your Place, Your Plan' states the Executive's policy intention of making the results of consultations on planning applications available to the public as soon as they are made. Making consultation responses available online enables greater openness and transparency, but there are issues surrounding handling of confidential and sensitive comments. It is therefore the Executive's intention to issue guidance on this issue.

Online Enforcement

42. Planning authority websites are encouraged to provide guidance on what is, and what is not, a valid enforcement issue, information on how enforcement complaints are dealt with, and advice on how name and postal address information is handled. Websites need to provide an email address where enforcement complaints can be submitted. Name and postal address information must be included with email enforcement complaints to enable the planning authority to establish the identity and location of the complainant.

43. Some planning authorities have developed an online enforcement complaints form, which can help structure complaints and ensure the correct information is provided. Wherever possible the information in the online form should be automatically uploaded to the authority's casework system and an automated confirmation receipt sent out.

44. Some planning authorities have developed systems that enable online access to information on enforcement action, such as alleged planning breaches that are under investigation and formal enforcement action. In such cases, the substance of valid complaints can be made publicly available, but the names and addresses of complainants should be kept confidential.

Case Study 4: Market Harborough Council and Wandsworth Borough Council have started to provide online access to enforcement information, which helps raise awareness of informal and formal enforcement action. These systems have been developed as demonstration projects for Planning and Regulatory Services Online ( PARSOL).

45. The service of notices relating to enforcement is exempt from the Town and Country Planning (Electronic Communications) (Scotland) Order. This means that such notices must be served on paper rather than by electronic means.

Extra Online Information

46. Planning authorities are encouraged to make committee reports and agendas available online. Many local authorities already do this on a corporate basis. Planning authorities should also seek to provide online access to additional information such as supplementary planning guidance and masterplans. This will help disseminate information to communities and businesses so it can be taken into account before planning applications are submitted. See paragraph 57 on the publication of information under the Freedom of Information Act. 2



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