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Steve Mathieson is a freelance analyst, journalist and editor, covering IT, government and healthcare, often in combination, writing for publications including The Guardian, I-D Information Daily, editing Society of IT Management's magazine.

@samathieson

How Liverpool encourages development through online planning

Under recently re-elected mayor Joe Anderson, Liverpool has taken an innovative approach to development, including offering derelict houses for £1 to people willing to renovate and live in them for five years. And the council has split its online planning service into versions for householders and for businesses, to encourage both groups to take part in developing the city.

“We have to be open to business,” Pete Flynn, technical support manager for the city, told the Better Connected Live audience. “We’ve pledged to build 10,000 new homes.” The city now encourages commercial development through three business champions covering sections of the city, with the mayor getting involved in the biggest schemes. Flynn said the contact details for the business champions are given on the planning pages for businesses.

Half of Liverpool’s planning applications are received electronically through the shared national Planning Portal system, while half still arrive by post. Moving to online applications has saved the council money on postage, with costs falling from £100,000 to £40,000 a year, and on employees, with technical staff numbers dropping from 20 to 13.

Flynn said the council is working on end-to-end electronic processing; a mobile system, which should be available later this year; and electronic consultations of those neighbouring an applicant. “It’s one of the most time-consuming things we have to do,” he said of the last task, but shifting it entirely to electronic channels would require the council to have email addresses for all the properties affected.

Helen Williams, a researcher for Better Connected, said that councils generally performed poorly when tested on how well they handled objections to planning applications. Only a third achieved three or four stars in the tests, carried out in January, and more than half scored the minimum one star. “It is one of the poorer-performing tasks we have,” she said, although also one of the most complex.

Councils generally use third-party software for their online planning services, which is harder to adjust than their own systems. “They are unwieldy and fairly poorly presented. They were developed for internal use,” she said of most third-party systems, with online access for residents and planning consultants originally an afterthought, although newer versions are improving this.

Despite their limitations, Williams said that planning software can usually be tweaked to make life easier for applicants, such as through providing guidance on what grounds an objection can be made. However, only 16% of councils provide access to such guidance from within their planning systems, according to the January research.

Williams said that Southampton City Council was one of the exceptions, having customised the text that appeared in its Idox planning software to link to such guidance, as well as making it clear that the personal details included within any comments will be published online.

She said that councils could also improve things by avoiding or offering alternatives to planning jargon, such as by explaining ‘undetermined applications’ as ‘undecided, current applications’, ‘material considerations’ as ‘things we can consider’ and ‘applications validated’ as ‘applications received’. Quoting the legislation concerned was not usually worthwhile, she added.

Flynn said that Liverpool City Council does not publish planning objection details online to avoid the controversy that this can produce, and that all content is edited by a web-team. “They look at a lot of the wording, and try to help us make it more user-friendly,” he said.

Liverpool planning applications: http://liverpool.gov.uk/planning-and-building-control/search-and-track-current-applications/

Southampton planning applications: http://www.southampton.gov.uk/planning/planning-applications/default.aspx

Better Connected planning applications research: https://betterconnected.socitm.net/services/planning/object-to-a-planning-application/2015-2016

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