Reducing Invalid Planning Applications — Beta

Project Team RIPA

Our last blog looked back over Alpha. Another discussion in our Beta kick off session was to look ahead to the Beta phase

Collaboration was a key win in Alpha — and one that we can build on into Beta.

All of the original partners are moving forward into the Beta — so we know we can work well together and for this phase a sixth partner joins us — Northumberland Council.

Adjusting to this temporary? semi permanent? virtual engagement set up that we find ourselves in will be key.

The current virtual landscape will require a think around what changes we need to the way we work as we head into Beta — but also as we cover different ground, looking at the minutiae will inevitably precipitate a shift in approach.

Early starts

During our break, in the interim, members of the RIPA team have been in contact with Southwark’s/Unboxed Beta project, Back Office Planning System, BoPs for short.

Buckinghamshire (formerly Wycombe) have been doing some early testing of the BoPs system and it looks exciting

The feedback is, it’s all coming together and looking really exciting and a future is beginning to emerge where it’s possible to see the two systems working really well together. One objective will be to achieve, at some point, a demo of that hook-up work that has gone on over the last few weeks.

As one of the partner’s said Now with the linkup between RIPA and BoPS — we’re really at the heart of something that will change the way things work. What’s being created is a fantastic simplification of process for the developer/applicant.

Exciting for the team, we have another non-London council joining us as a partner — which we will really benefit from — with Northumberland becoming the sixth partner of the core project team. They experience the same kind of problems with 45/55% of applications invalid on submission and the same basic reasons for invalidation: fee / location plan, etc.

There is some debate around whether we could widen our scope from Householders to include Certificates of Lawfulness. This would raise local policy considerations (e.g. Article 4/removing permitted development rights) — but is this parallel to householders?

An early sprint will be reviewing the validation checklist of Northumberland and a review of the other partners’ lists too. There’s a desire in the team to really challenge and question…are all of the requirements genuinely for validation or are they closer to the type of requirement that might help determine a planning application?…and they’re two separate things.

Other strategies, questions, thoughts….

Wider engagement — we would have liked to have done more in Alpha and part of our Beta bid interview was the statement we would do that for Beta … that was before lockdown so it needs a rethink — it’ll be trickier now as we won’t just be able to jump on a train / drive a car and engage in person… so the plan is to draw up plan, always a good plan, and devise a strategy that will help with achieving a wider engagement…

We also want/need to think about how we are ready to make the tool scalable… another strategy to work on: how do we scale up…?

A big question will be how the switchover from legacy systems will work. How feasible will it be for councils to run two systems side by side in the early phases of roll out? Many councils will want to (need to) run two systems side by side in those early stages.

And we want to be clear on what our MVP (minimum viable product) is…under-promise, overdeliver…

GIS (Geographical Information System) will be critical to working properly and as some councils don’t have a very good GIS system — this is another hurdle we will need to jump.

GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations): we know from Alpha —apart from Lambeth — that we struggled to get past GDPR local authority blockages. This impacted our ability to reach out to users and potential users (residents, agents, architects) and encourage them to get on board as volunteer testers of the developing system. We had a fantastic pool of volunteers from Lambeth — but we need to know what the partner users think too. So, we need to engage early with Information Governance teams and the council solicitors upfront so that we can work with them, gain their confidence and support in what we’re doing and have their agreement to allow those four other — well five now — partner authorities to navigate any GDPR issues.

Council communication teams are another area we need to reach out to. The digital funding project ethos is for open working. However, some councils may be wary of allowing fully open working. They may be fearful of mistakes being made in the open. The fear of failure and associated embarrassments are things we need to think imaginatively around. How can we find ways to shift corporate mindsets prone to over cautiousness…?

It’s clear that trust can be built with our users in being open about mistakes (not failures) and much can be learnt as a result. But, it’s equally clear that sometimes, others may not view those mistakes in a positive frame. Still, with our working in the open we are hopeful that we can show we are learning and improving from these important learnings and reframe the negative to a positive.

Pre-empting possible obstacles will help steel us against knock backs: what about the other ‘modules’ that make up the monster that is a planning application database…consultation modules, Gazeteer, public website…how will future systems that RIPA speaks to deal with PPAs, S106, Extension of Time (EoTs)….what about integrating with other systems — Land Charges, LDD, Exacom…and APIs for legacy systems…There’s a lot to think about and consider, but we are undaunted by the challenge… here comes into play another Alastair-led mantra Do one thing well and let others do the other bits…

Key to some of these questions will be development of a common language that allows other councils to adopt the system. Our close links and working with the BoPs team will be key in ensuring we work towards that common language. And, whilst the project is being developed to run on OSL’s Plan X platform — equally we are ensuring what is developed will be able to be picked up and run on any platform..Our overarching ethos remains moving from documents into data (see Blog 1 — looking back on Alpha)

Ultimately, the project aim is to reduce the time it takes to process all applications. That is what we need to show the wider planning community and in so doing, help get them engaged and on board.

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