Quantum leap for planning services

How one council has used tablets and other technology to massively improve efficiency and reduce costs within its planning department.

Robin Vaissiere, PlanningPortal account manager for the South, recently visited Reigate and Banstead Borough Council development management (RBBC), which made the move to a paperless department in recent months. The development management function was one of the services that had to relocate due to a rationalisation and refit of the RBBC town hall office space.

Under the corporate revised ways of working the number of available desk spaces were reduced by 20 per cent, which influenced the hot desking set-up across the council.

RBBC development quality manager Kelvin Hinton used the opportunity to maximise electronic working by introducing paperless working practices to casework and consultation processes.

All incoming planning applications are now validated electronically on screen. Planning officers were equipped with large 27-inch monitors to view application drawings and other supporting documentation.

Officers use software measuring tools that are also available to external users of their online public register. Planning officers do have the option to print out their own copies of drawings if required but this is by exception and avoided whenever possible.

Planning officers have remote access to back-office planning system, meaning they can access application information from home, saving travelling time and improving hot-desk availability in the office.

Tablets lead to ‘quantum leap’

However, the real quantum leap followed the introduction of tablet devices for site inspections.

RBBC projects and change officer Kenton Reader shadowed planning officer site inspections to assess appropriate technology and usage requirements.

The practical trials identified that screen brightness is an important consideration, as was robust shockproof protection – although this does add to device weight and size.

Given broadband black spots in some rural areas, it was decided that in most cases the whole case file should be downloaded onto the tablet for site inspections using Civica Briefcase software.

For those applications with multiple documents, only the most relevant plans and drawings are downloaded.  The working case file can then be viewed and annotated, with photographs and report notes recorded on-site, then uploaded back in the office or from home.

RBBC selected the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 tablet to view drawings and documents on-site.

Costing around £700 per unit, the device’s 10.6-inch screen permits folder navigation and viewing of documents in a sizeable split-screen format. Users can pinch, enlarge and flick through opened Adobe documents. A stylus is included to select the finer detail.

The development management service bought an initial bank of eight devices held on full battery charge and ready for officers to take on-site.

Adoption has been mixed, with some officers taking up the new technology faster than others. However, print requests have now fallen significantly to an ‘acceptable’ level.

This technology has also led to wider adoption by building control departments. At the Planning Portal we know that there is now a growing number planning departments capitalising on the lessons learnt from building control and who are currently trialling mobile devices for site inspections.

Encouraging applicants to work electronically

A recent communication to local agents stating that RBBC is encouraging planning applications to be submitted electronically has been circulated.

This was accompanied by a useful ‘hints and tips’ document aimed at making sure applicants check the authority’s local requirements guidance and providing advice on format supporting documents suitably for processing on screen.

RBBC used the opportunity to include their latest newsletter to customers to outline the ‘paperless office’ work, along with other core strategy and planning policy advice.

The newsletter also stated that RBBC has reduced the minimum requirement to one printed copy, for applicants who prefer the option to submit in paper form.

These paper submissions are scanned on receipt and processed on-screen in the same way as electronically submitted applications. They no longer need copies for consultees, or to keep on deposit, as monitors are available for visitors to view documents on screen in reception and at one-stop shops.

RBBC have scanned paper application files going back to 1999 and decision notices to 1974 and made them available online. As a result, archive space and associated costs have been reduced by 80 per cent. Further planned work will see TPO and enforcement notice information published via the website.

Integration between iDox planning system and Civica document management provides the facility to automate the creation and archiving to the case file of acknowledgement letters that can either be printed or sent by email where the applicant has provided an email address.

Having already realised significant cost savings in print and postage, RBBC is planning to send decision notices in the same way, saving around 1,500 posted communications per year.

Working with consultees online

Statutory and non-statutory consultees are notified of planning applications by email and view and measure application drawings and supporting information published in RBBC’s online application register. Consultees submit their comments electronically via the integrated iDox Public Access facility.

RBBC promote the Portal’s online fee payment facility and are now looking at offering telephone and LPA website payment options. This will help reduce cheque payments and subsequent invalidation rates caused by waiting for fee payment cheques in the post.

Changes to RBBC’s website to promote the portal later in the year will complete the process of encouraging planning applications to be submitted online, instead of paper.

Other changes to the planning service will soon see the removal of the drop-in duty planner service in favour of a chargeable appointment system for householder development advice.

This saves time by letting planners avoid ad-hoc queries and understand the nature of the enquiry in advance and prepare appropriate information ahead of appointments.

The authority’s development quality manager Kelvin Hinton said: “The long awaited office move meant that we could finally use this opportunity to implement improvements to our planning processes that will realise significant cost savings and efficiencies and closely align us with the Government’s ‘Digital by Default’ ethos.”

Published with kind permission of PlanningPortal

Colin Marrs

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