Planning Portal director Chris Kendall on the lessons learnt by one unitary authority engaging town and parish councils in online planning consultation.
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.
Chris Kendall is director of Planning Portal.
This article is reproduced with kind permission of Planning Portal.