Gearing up for pre-private beta testing

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The days may be getting colder and shorter but work on the RIPA project has done anything but slow down as we approach Christmas!

Our last sprint included getting the officer survey circulated amongst all the partner authorities. We’re now starting to collect data on officer experience and some of this was presented in our Show and Tell (for early findings check out the recording here)

We also drafted up text to add to partner websites, encouraging any agents or applicants who may be interested in trying out the private beta tool during the trial period to register their interest.

The Lambeth and Bucks teams met with MHCLG to go over the Benefits Case Monitoring and Evaluation Framework document that has been drawn up to be used for monitoring the metrics we are and will be collecting.

We also held alignment session №4 with the RIPA team partners and the BoPs team (Back-Office Planning System project) and reviewed the Monitoring and Evaluation Framework with that wider group.

One of the hot topics for discussion was around the upcoming pre-private beta testing with dummy information and historic data. One task that was set for the next sprint was drawing up a schedule / programme of testing for this initial testing period. The plan is:

  • hold kick off meetings with volunteers
  • ensure this includes a mix of planners, officers in the council who have used the system in the past but are not qualified planners and complete
  • take them through the tool and provide them the link
  • explain how to use any feedback widgets and provide a link to an issues log for their use
  • schedule one-to-one post catch up session with each of our volunteers.

Some detail behind that structure needs to be worked up and this will be a priority over the coming sprint (04/12 to 18/12).

Unlucky for some, ‘definitely vibrant’ for others and the symbol of incorruptible power and divinity for others, our thirteenth Show and Tell provided another successful look back over the last sprint. This was promptly followed by our usual partner workshop — this time dedicated an LDC Content sessions — deftly led by Emily from Buckinghamshire. This session followed on from a previous workshop held with enforcement and validation officers, however, this time the invitation was extended to include planning officers.

The aim of the workshop was to to ensure that we are asking applicants for all the information required for their planning application to then be validated and move onto being assessed. By including officers outside of the core project team, we could be sure we were gaining the insight and expertise from as wide a pool of officers as possible.

Ownership and Interest

How much detail do you need when assessing an applicant’s interest in land?

The first question asked was to do with the applicant’s interest in the land relating to their application. Current legislation states that any application for a Lawful Development Certificate must be accompanied by:

‘…a statement setting out the applicant’s interest in the land, the name and address of any other person known to the applicant to have an interest in the land and whether any such other person has been notified of the application.’

This has already been integrated into our online tool, asking users whether they are the ‘only owner’, ‘one of the owners’ or ‘not the owner’ of the site. However, we wanted to see how much additional information is required from an assessor’s perspective.

Feedback from both planners and validators in the room confirmed that information on the applicant’s interest in land is rarely used to assess LDC applications. One of the few times this may be relevant is when an applicant has provided a statutory declaration to accompany their application — officers may then need to determine whether this declaration could be biased or not.

One interesting point raised by a planner from Lambeth was around the definition of the ‘site’ in question. If an application is submitted for a flat/block of flats, does the ‘site’ include any communal areas that may exist in the building? Questions like this demonstrate the need to involve diverse minds in the RIPA project — highlighting different ways that one can approach legislation and allowing us to develop our service accordingly.

Materials

How should we ask applicants about the materials used in their project?

Similarly to ‘ownership’, materials often form a key part of the assessment process for LDC applications. Again, we wanted to understand how much detail is required in this area — is it enough to know that the materials used to make a window are ‘similar’ to the previous window, or should we be going into more detail about the finish and texture of design features?

Drawing on their experience from working as both a validator and a planner, an officer from Buckinghamshire council claimed that materials are more important to planners when determining an LDC application. When an individual applies for an LDC, the onus is currently on them as the applicant to provide enough information about their project. There is therefore a difficult balance to achieve with our online tool — on the one hand we must avoid leading applicants to supply particular bits of information, but on the other we must encourage them to supply enough detail so that the application can be made valid.

Highlighting the complexity of the planning system, one officer spoke from his experience about determining LDC applications for Listed Buildings. In this instance, materials may need to be specified down to the guttering chosen for the property. Generally speaking, however, any application form for LDCs needs to target the ‘materials, style and finish’ of development works.

Thinking ahead, a key challenge for us will be to work out the difference in information required between LDC applications and other types of planning application — stay tuned for further updates on this!

Drawings and Evidence

This was discussed at the last LDC content meeting, however, we now wanted to dig a little deeper into the varying local requirements of partner councils when it comes to evidence accompanying an LDC application. From our previous session, we found out that LDC applications for proposed use are commonly supplied with drawings, whereas applications for existing use are often submitted with bills and other forms of evidence.

One of Lambeth’s validation officers advised that floor plans are always requested from applicants. If there are building works/alterations involved, then the council will also ask for elevations. On the other hand, Southwark council often asks for site and block plans in addition to others. Speaking about the process more generally, an attendee from Buckinghamshire noted that planning legislation gives officers the flexibility to invalidate applications if particular plans are missing — reinforcing the need for us to get this right in our service, in order to reduce numbers of invalid applications.

Working for RIPA and for BoPs

Given the importance of linking the RIPA service with our ‘sister’ project — the Back-office Planning System (BoPs)– we wanted to use this opportunity to gather some additional feedback on other aspects of the project.

Is the process for returning an application the same for all LDC project types?

Of particular importance here is how applications are marked on existing systems, once they are returned to applicants as invalid. One officer highlighted that a small number of applications are returned but are never subsequently resubmitted. This may be due to an issue with the project or simply just frustration with the process. The Validation Manager at Buckinghamshire mentioned that in this scenario, such applications are marked as ‘returned’ and not ‘withdrawn’. If an application is returned then the applicant has a particular timeframe in which to respond and re-submit, otherwise the case will be closed and the fee refunded. This process was found to be similar across all partners on the project.

‘it would be great to find a more shared way of handling LDCs!’

Since Alpha, one of the things we’re coming across again and again is the benefit that a more standardised approach would bring.

Workshop 14 was invaluable in facilitating conversations between experts involved in the validation, assessment, determination and enforcement of the planning process. It showed again the benefits and value of collaboration — something team RIPA have been champions of since our Alpha inception.

Our next Sprint will include amongst other tasks, more user testing, drawing up the detail for the onboarding and monitoring process of early pre-private beta testing, going over the checklist and seeing what’s missing and what’s outstanding in the ‘high’ priority field, and a review of where we are in terms of risks.

Next Show and Tell — 18th December, 10:45 am.

Written by

We’ve made it to Beta. An MHCLG funded project, led by Lambeth with five partners — Buckinghamshire, Camden, Lewisham, Northumberland and Southwark

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