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Object to a planning application - 2015-16

Why important

The planning process is designed to allow the views of neighbours and the community to be taken into consideration when planning decisions are made. It is hugely important that members of the public can easily find, view and comment on the details of planning applications they may be interested in, and to be enabled to make an objection easily, so that it can be taken into account when a decision is made.

Date of assessment

January 2016

Coverage

Shire districts, English, Welsh and Scottish unitaries and Northern Ireland districts.

Overview

Exactly the same survey was undertaken in 2013, although the coverage then included London boroughs and metropolitan districts, and did not include Northern Ireland distircts. The result in 2013 was that 33% of councils tested pass the standard. Today, 34% of councils tested have achieved the equivalent - three or four stars which is the same as a pass under the old scoring system. Looking at different types of councils, shire districts and Welsh unitaries have upped their game, but from low bases, with councils in these categories providing and good or very good service up respectively from 28% to 33% and from 23% to 36% - although in terms of numbers, that means just three more Welsh authorities making the grade (and six more shire districts). None of the 11 Northern Ireland districts tested this year achieved more than 2 stars.

Find your council report

Check ‘coverage’ to see if your council has been surveyed. Go to councils page and select your council. Look for link to task report under 2016-17 results

Headline results

34%

Provide a good or very good online service based on this survey

Better connected rankings

5%
29%
21%
45%
0%
0%
0%

*Discrepancies in the figures are due to rounding off

Key
  • 4 stars (Very Good)
  • 3 stars (Good)
  • 2 stars (Unsatisfactory)
  • 1 star (Poor)

 

Questions

NB Question highlighted in red is an ‘essential question’ that must be answered correctly for the council to meet the standard for this task. Questions highlighted in blue affect star ranking

Questions to be answered "Yes"
Would you recommend that other councils look at this implementation as an example of good practice? 10%
Does a Google search lead me to the task? 91%
Does the site provide comprehensive information about commenting on a planning application? 58%
Is a link provided for viewing all current planning applications? 89%
When viewing a current application, am I informed that I can comment on it? 93%
When viewing a current application and preparing to submit comments, is guidance provided about permitted grounds for objection? 16%
Is it clear that any comments I submit will be published, along with my name, and available for inspection by any interested party? 30%
Is it clear how I might obtain assistance if required? 35%
Can I sign up to receive an e-mail alert when new applications are made in my area? 15%
Was a useful map presented to me during the completion of this task? 18%
Were all the relevant pieces of information/pages for this task linked together to make a smooth, coherent journey? 59%
Does the home page link me directly to the task? 79%
Does the service landing page link me directly to this task? 80%
Does a search for the task description return the correct result listed in the first five results? 68%
Does the A to Z list include this task? 62%
Other questions affecting standard achieved
Was the content you reviewed free of any out of date information? 97%
Overall, how do you rate the journey plus task completion? 1.6
Non-scoring questions
Was the content you reviewed concise and free of jargon? 76%

Task report

On a number of questions, councils did less well in 2016 than in 2013. While some of this could be partly down to the different profile of councils tested, it is a disappointing result given rapid development in digital technologies, and the growing expectations of internet users.

Question 'Yes' 2016 (%) 'Yes' 2013 (%)
Does the site provide comprehensive information about commenting on a planning application? 47 58
Is it clear that any comments I submit will be published, along with my name, and available for inspection by any interested party? 30 52
Is it clear how I might obtain assistance if required? 35 53
Was a useful map presented to me during the completion of this task? 18 39

On other important questions, that scored very poorly in 2013, almost no improvement appears to have been made from a very low base of achievement.

Question 'Yes' 2016 (%) 'Yes' 2013 (%)
When viewing a current application and preparing to submit comments, is guidance provided about permitted grounds for objection? 16 17
Can I sign up to receive an e-mail alert when new applications are made in my area? 14 14

Also worrying is that for nearly 9% of councils tested, searching in Google did not find a meaningful result for the council name plus ‘object to planning application’.

Councils did well on our ‘essential question’ When viewing a current application, am I informed that I can comment on it? – and on having information up to date. Poor performance on either means a council cannot get above two stars for the task.

The stumbling blocks on this task were the quality of the customer journey and task promotion, where councils scoring one out of three for either cannot get more than one star for the task. Behind most of these failures lies poor integration between third-party supplied planning systems and the planning pages on the council website.

Very few councils customise the implementation of the planning system, even in the simplest of ways, and this seriously affects the customer experience. Many were let down, for example, by the restrictions of the search function within the planning system. There are instances of really good integration, however – see our recommended section for links to examples.

Some councils have managed to simplify the task and the route to it, even though planning is a complex topic. There is much variation in the style and amount of the information offered about objecting to a planning application, and those unfamiliar with the planning system will struggle with some approaches.

Although most sites had a visible link to comment, sometimes it was necessary to read through lots of text to find it. Others did not mention commenting/objecting on the planning landing page, but assumed visitors would know to look under planning search, or planning applications. There were many instances where clearer signposting would have helped. Most sites offered links called 'comment on' rather than 'object to'. The good sites found the right place from search or A-Z functions irrespective of which term was used.

Very rarely did a council offer a clear link to see 'all current applications'. Most relied on the planning system search facility which was not always able to deliver such a list. Many assumed visitors would know or be interested only in a specific application reference number ward, or postcode.

A monthly list of validated applications or a 'between dates' list of all applications is only partially useful, given that planning applications can remain undecided for sometimes many months. If the list showed the validation date and the current status, these limitations were, to some extent, alleviated.

Almost no council provided helpful information at the point of completing the comments form. Very few had added useful information to the ‘help’ file in the planning system.

A few councils set out copious explanations of how the planning system search worked. A less complex search, with little or no explanation needed would be a better solution.

Maps caused reviewers considerable problems, slowing systems down considerably and often turning out to be unusable. ‘My heart sank every time I encountered a map - so much quicker without them’ commented one. ‘GIS / ordnance survey based maps are usually very clunky to use and often impenetrable. In one system, a weekly or monthly search often displayed the results on a small map by default. However, this took ages to load, preventing access to any of the applications in the meantime. The small map showed the applications marked but was so ‘zoomed out’ it would be impossible to know exactly where they were, so it is natural to click to view on a larger map. However, at this point, after waiting all over again for the larger map to load, I couldn’t see any applications marked at all. There were very few exceptions to this experience.’

Councils are getting a lot better at using terminology that is easier for the general public to understand, but there are still plenty of examples of terminology that could be improved. For example, ‘planning’ is a more accessible term for ordinary citizens than ‘development control’. Frequently encountered jargon includes:

  • ‘Undetermined applications’ - why not ‘undecided applications’, ‘live applications’, ‘current applications’, or ‘outstanding applications’
  • ‘Applications validated’ – why not ‘applications received’ (even if technically this covers more than one status within the internal process for managing applications)
  • ‘Representations’ – why not ‘comments’ or ‘objections’
  • ‘Material considerations’ – why not ‘things we can consider’ or ‘what can I comment on?’

Some planning departments feel the need refer to the exact legal basis for their processes. This really isn’t necessary or helpful to the general public. Where one council says:

‘Please note that all comments received in respect of planning applications will become background papers (as defined in the Access to Information Act 1985) and accordingly will be available for public inspection. You should be aware that by making a representation you are consenting to your name being included in the planning file, which is open to public inspection. ‘

Another council simply says:

‘By law, any written comments you make about a planning application must be publicly available. Your comments will be published on our website, including your name and address. ‘

Labelling and references need attention. Many sites that use it refer to their system as ‘Public Access’ even though the product isn’t branded with that name these days. This is unnecessary and potentially confusing. There is no need to call the system anything proprietary, follow the example of sites that simply launch it from generic, descriptive links like ‘search planning applications’ or ‘view and comment on planning applications’.

Close attention must be paid to wording to ensure that people can understand the implications of what is said. Statements like ‘We will not display your personal data online.’ are very misleading. Most members of the public will not be able to differentiate between ‘personal data’ (meaning e-mail address, phone number etc) and their name and address which is not considered personal data for planning purposes.  One council that makes it makes it very clear is Ashford BC: ‘Please note: Your comments, including your name and address, will be viewable on this web site whilst the application or any subsequent appeal is being considered. Your telephone number and e-mail address will not be viewable on this website.’

The survey asked a question about whether people could sign up for e-mail notifications about new applications in an area. This facility is a standard feature of one of the most popular systems, but it is not clearly explained, or clearly promoted by councils using this system. Braintree is one council that does this nicely, stating: 'Perform and save map searches for your area and receive email notifications when new applications are received.'

Many councils did not give any information about what people can comment on and what planning officers can and can’t take into consideration. There is potentially a lot of information that might be published about these ‘material considerations’ when making comments. Some include it all on the commenting webpage, making it rather a long scroll down. Others link to another page (or a pdf). A good approach is a list of clearly named links on a comment page that can be opened individually.

Many also directed people to commenting via the planning system without mentioning that comments can be accepted via e-mail or letter. Even where councils did publish a more detailed guide to commenting and stated the alternative ways to comment, too many did not publish at this point the postal address, necessitating much casting about either on the web page or trawling through other pages in the planning section to find a postal address.

Some councils require registration in order to make a comment but do not say why, and some of them only tell you this after you've found and clicked the comment button.

Good practice

Finding the task

  • The information should be found by entering ‘council name’ object planning application' into Google (or other search engines).
  • Searches and navigation paths should all lead directly to the same guidance page on how to comment on a current application, which in turn should link to the planning application system search to view and comment online.
  • The planning landing page should acknowledge that visitors may wish to view and comment on an application.

Completing the task

  • The planning system search / introductory page should draw attention to the facility to comment on current applications online and provide guidance on how to do it.
  • The comments from within the planning applications system should link to guidance on grounds for objection as well as providing information about where comments will be published.
  • The link to make a comment within a current application should be obvious on the first page and not hidden behind another tab.
  • The planning search page should offer the facility to make it easy to find all current live applications (ie those still open for comment).
  • An individual planning application page should clearly state whether the application is still open for consultation.
  • The site should offer users the facility to sign up for e-mail alerts informing them about new applications in their area

Commenting

Getting this task right is more complicated than just enabling users to submit an opinion via an online form. To make an informed comment that can be taken into consideration an objector needs to view the application and be aware of relevant planning rules.

Under the provisions of the Local Government Act 2000 in England and Wales, background papers which reveal facts on which a planning officer’s report has been based must be made available for public inspection. Any comments submitted, therefore, become public documents and cannot be treated as confidential even if the writer expressly wishes it.  Good guidance pages also contain details of:

  • how and where to view plans and encouragement to do so before commenting
  • all methods for submitting your comment to the planning office
  • deadlines for comments
  • what type of comments may be taken into consideration (examples of grounds for objection that are valid and those that are not
  • what must be included with comments (name and address, sometimes application
  • reference)
  • what happens to comments and how the progress of an application can be followed
  • what you can do (if anything) if you are unhappy with the decision made.

Poor practice

Poor practice

  • The planning section of the website is structured entirely around the responsibilities of the department, rather than the tasks or information most requested by users.
  • Unnecessary planning jargon dominates
  • Content related to planning applications is written for applicants, without mention of other interested parties
  • Planning systems are poorly presented and integrated with the planning pages on the council site
  • Very little information is given about how to comment
  • The site assumes that users realise that they have to search for an application as the starting point
  • No guidance is given on what might be taken into consideration as valid grounds for objection
  • lack of links/signposting between information about what can be taken into consideration and the online comment form.

Sites that we recommend

Eden

An excellent experience here. The planning system (Fastweb) is very easy to use to find current applications and comment on them, and the site links through to a wealth of guidance at the right points.

http://eforms.eden.gov.uk/fastweb/comment.asp?AltRef=16/0046&submit4=Object+to+or+support+a+planning+application

Edinburgh

Really well promoted from all entry points of the website, it would be difficult not to get on the right path for this user journey. It was great that I was always signposted via the content page which was nicely presented so that it was easy to scan and well written. The online service was prominently linked to for online comment, monthly lists were available to get the 'monthly applications, although it would be nice to see one button that says 'Current applications'. At last I have found a council site that I can use the mapping on. The results that I found once going to the larger map were displaying. Great.

http://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/info/20067/planning_applications/288/view_and_comment_on_planning_applications

Flintshire

This is well done, easy to find, easy to use. It is a pity there is no named link to a list of current applications. The weekly list however is very good as it provides decision dates and status information.  Great mapping

http://www.flintshire.gov.uk/en/Resident/Planning/View-and-comment-on-planning-applications.aspx

Preston

Neatly done, easy to use. Great to see guidance about commenting at the point of completing the form. Date search produces list indicating status. Alert possible when new weekly list is available

http://www.preston.gov.uk/yourservices/planning/

Rushmoor BC

Easy to use and find applications and how to comment. Good clickable map showing all applications within vicinity- current and decided. The status is shown in the pop up. ould be linked from the search applications page.

http://www.rushmoor.gov.uk/publicaccess

Southampton

The routes into the information were spot on - so clear and simple it makes me wonder why all councils can't manage this. It's a standard Idox interface and you have to register in order to comment, but I see for the first time in the comments section a link to guidance about commenting and clear information about your name and address being included. Well phrased, helpful content everywhere here. Well done! It's just a shame you are forced the rather laborious registration process before you can even see the comment form.

http://www.southampton.gov.uk/planning/planning-applications/comment-planning-application.aspx

West Berkshire

A very clean interface on this site and it is clear that some thought and work has been put into the Idox implementation, so the customisable elements have been worked on - such as the wording on the home page of the system and also on the comments section. This is really helpful and boosts the site in performance in our survey.

http://publicaccess.westberks.gov.uk/online-applications/search.do?action=simple&searchType=Application

 

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