The scope of the review is wide-ranging, with respondents asked to consider almost every aspect of the planning system.
The ideas below are not a comprehensive response to the questions posed by those leading the review, but they do fall within its remit. All of them would make the current system more accessible, transparent and user friendly.
They are inspired by a number of years of practical interaction with the planning system.
If you have your own ideas, then you might want to add them into the comments to this post. Your responses will help to inform any formal response Plannning Democracy, and others, might submit to the review.
Councils should be bolder about specifying what developers must do at pre-application stage.
All developers proposing a major development must undertake ‘pre-application consultation,’ before submitting a full planning application to the council. Although pre-application proposals are rubber stamped by the council, few local authorities require very much from developers at this stage, beyond the statutory minimum.
Here’s some ideas that could improve this:
1. Local authorities should keep an opt-in register of people and organisations that wish to be involved in pre-application consultations, and require developers to contact all the people on the register.
Currently planners decide who developers “must” consult with at this stage. If planners do not deem you, or your organisation important enough, then you may miss public consultation events and you will struggle to access any electronic consultation materials. Practice on this varies around the country, but there’s no reason why all councils could not keep an opt-in, publicly searchable, register of consultees, and require developers to adhere to it.
This would cost councils almost nothing and boost community engagement.
2. Local Authorities must require developers to publish their pre-application consultation materials on-line, and provide an opportunity for people to provide feedback on-line.
Councils don’t do this, but they could, and it would cost them nothing.
Some developers don’t publish any materials online, so the only opportunities people not linked to one of the “consulted organisations” have to take part in the pre-application consultation process can be at a public consultation event.
That’s if they saw the newspaper advert about it, and if they can make it….
Planning Democracy is aware of developers that have refused to supply pre-application consultation materials in an electronic format in the past, even when directly approached by local people who would be affected by a development.
3. Developers should be required to include all the correspondence they receive through the pre-application consultation process in the final report submitted as part of the planning application, in a raw, unredacted, format. This should be independently verified.
It’s currently too easy for developers to manipulate the pre-application consultation process, and use it as a form of ‘pre-development marketing.’ Councils only check that developers have met their (usually fairly simple conditions on the consultation process) but they almost never validate the ‘PAC reports’ against the raw submissions from the public, and this therefore undermines the value of the documents.
It is too easy for developers to ‘gloss over’ or under report difficult issues raised by consultees at this stage, and instead use the PAC report to over-state the level of public support for their proposals.
The developer should be required to publish all submissions to the PAC process online prior to the submission of the full planning application. This should be independently verified by a third party organisation.
Again, this would cost local authorities virtually nothing to implement.
Access to information
When a planning application has been submitted it can be difficult to access the information.
Most Scottish councils use a system supplied by a firm called Idox to publish planning documents online.
There are a number of ways that this system could be improved – some are the fault of Idox, some are the fault of the council that has not implemented the Idox system well – either way, these improvements proposed below may seem like small technical problems individually, but taken together, they amount to a serious fail that must be rectified.
4. Give each planning application a unique, permanent url.
It is seemingly impossible for a member of the public to link directly to a planning application in an Idox powered planning portal. They are not indexed by Google. So how are people supposed to find out about planning applications and share the information in them?
People currently can’t share a link on social media or by email, to the application as a whole, or individual documents.
Instead everyone must pro-actively search in a special box, on a special webpage, that is often buried several layers deep in a sprawling council website. It’s a huge barrier to people and in 2015 government must do better than this.
5. Applications should be published to RSS feeds and made available as open data.
RSS feeds of new applications could allow planning information to be used in all sorts of useful ways. It could be automatically tweeted, re-published on blogs, people can subscribe to the feed directly in a feed reader, or it could be used in third party mobile phone apps.
Councils may not have the resources to innovate interesting ways to publish planning application data on the web and thus make it more engaging, but third party organisations would, if the data could be made available in a reliable way.
At this point someone usually mentions the “Tell me Scotland” portal, which claims to be able to notify you when a planning application is made near you. It doesn’t work. Many councils only publish a limited sub-set of applications to Tell Me Scotland – and even if users get a notification, they must still go back through the painful Idox search system in order to dig out the details of the application.
This is not an acceptable user experience in 2015.
In 2015, why can’t anyone with a blog post an RSS feed of new planning applications in their area, that would update automatically, into the sidebar of our blog?
The later even manages to make an RSS feed for every ward in their patch. These were just the first three results that came up in a Google search, and they are by no means unique.
If borough councils in England can do it, why can’t larger councils in Scotland do it?
6. Applications should be published online with accessible, realistic images.
The key thing people want to know about a new development in their area is what it will look like.
Why then must people wade through several giant, badly labelled pdf files that may never render on a mobile device with limited bandwidth, in order to get a simple image of a proposal?
Developers should be required to supply a series of standard sized, mobile friendly images, and these should be displayed prominently in any revised online planning portal.
Furthermore, these images should indicate what a development would actually look like from a typical viewpoint. Developers should not be permitted to supply mock-up images that are produced from viewpoints that would require superhuman abilities, or a helicopter to practically enjoy.
Bonus points for any local authority that includes an image in their new planning application RSS feed.
7.Sort out the weekly email list.
All councils produce a ‘weekly list’ of new and ‘decided’ planning applications. Surprisingly few make this available to the public – although Edinburgh does.
In theory, the fabled Idox system allows registered users to sign-up for email alerts in their area. However, the user experience is poor, and filled with off-putting official jargon. Some planners appear complacent about this and expect the public to understand professional jargon when signing up for Idox alerts.
Additionally, many local authorities have no idea how many people have registered with their system, or receive alerts. Almost none promote the weekly list, or even the Idox system as a means of community engagement in planning. Why not?
Planners may regard the weekly list as an anachronism. Instead they should invest in it and treat it as a community engagement opportunity.
Related to this, councils should ensure that the weekly list is updated properly. The statutory footing of the weekly list should be made clear to councils. They should be required to publish a weekly list, anyone should be able to sign-up for it, and it should be accurate and up-to-date.
8. Hello, it’s the mobile internet.
Have you ever looked at the Edinburgh planning portal on your phone? It’s not responsive, so it’s hard to use on small screens. The rest of the council website is responsive, but not the bit to do with planning.
The weird thing is, some Scottish local authorities have found a way to make the Idox powered portal responsive. Others think they have a mobile friendly planning portal when they, um, don’t.
In an era when most websites get more than 40% of their traffic from people using mobile phones or tablets this neglect is inexcusable. Especially as poorer people are less likely to have a broadband connection at home and may only be able to access the internet from a mobile device.
9. Publish all the public comments and all the documents prior to the decision.
Councils must be required to publish all the comments – and other official documentation – made about an application online, prior to the application being determined. Often they are not, apparently because councils do not always have the resources to process them in time.
Yet comments made from third parties are often key to the public debate about a development.
If people are to trust the planning system, there must not be any hint of ‘cover-up’ prior to the determination. Often officials summarise the comments made about a development in reports given to committee. The way this is done can lead to perceptions of bias. Publishing all comments in full would avoid this, and this should be made a statutory responsibility of planning authorities to ensure appropriate resources are devoted to the task.
Building a fairer, transparent process.
There are other changes that should be made to build a fairer and transparent process.
10. Planning applications shouldn’t change after the consultation process is over.
Developers can alter their application after the public consultation process has concluded, if planners agree. This shouldn’t be permitted.
Similarly, when developers supply revised documentation the superseded documentation should be displayed separately from the final documentation. The Idox system presents old and new documents together, which, in large complex applications, makes things more confusing.
11. Better records should be kept of planning committee meetings.
The City of Edinburgh Council and Highland Council are to be congratulated for webcasting their planning committee meetings. Few other local authorities do.
However, councils do not publish detailed voting records of how each councillor voted when there is not a unanimous view. Councils should record individual voting information and they should publish it alongside a webcast, or audio recording of every planning committee.
This would bring further transparency to the planning process and make it easier for voters to hold councillors accountable for their views.
12.Equal right of appeal
Currently, the planning system is not a level playing field. If a developer has their proposal rejected by the planning committee, they can request that the decision is reviewed by the Scottish Government. However, if the planning committee gives a developer approval, there is no similar right of appeal for the people who may be affected by the decision. This means that ‘weak refusals’ from councils can be challenged, but ‘weak approvals’ can not be challenged.
There should be an equal right of appeal built into the system. You can find out more in this ERA resource for communities here.
This list is just a start. What would you do to improve the planning system? Let us know in the comments below.
This is a slightly revised version of a post that was published on the Greener Leith blog