Published: 30th Sep 2020

Paul Beaney, customer success director at DEF writes on the challenges facing local authority planning departments in the months to come. 

In early July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the most radical reforms to the planning system since the Second World War, giving greater freedom for buildings to change use without planning permission and the creation of new homes from the regeneration of vacant and redundant buildings. He also announced £5bn in funding with a rallying cry to ‘build build build.’

Whilst this announcement has drawn scepticism from experts in the industry about the lack of clarity on the type of projects this is meant to support, or whether it’s even enough to ‘restart’ the construction industry post lockdown, it has highlighted to planning departments that changes will need to be made to facilitate many of the large scale public sector projects this will likely spark, such as schools and hospitals, as well as smaller projects such as new housing.

Planning departments within local authorities can often be viewed as roadblocks to construction products, and whilst these reforms may improve services down the line, work will need to be put in by local authorities to support these changes and help the industry back on its feet. This is added to the extra pressure that the vast majority of local government employees are still working from home.

Following the obvious first hurdle, like ‘can I access all the relevant systems from home?’ we highlight here some the lessons that our planning customers have shared with us that might be useful lessons for planning departments to help streamline their own processes in order to support a hopeful boost in industry post Covid-19.

  1. Go 100% Paperless – Many local authority planning departments have held aspirations of operating digitally and 100% without paper for some time now, however very few have reached this goal. During this pandemic the need to be paperless has been heightened to the point where it is almost a necessity. It is very difficult for staff to work on planning applications when the physical paper file is stored in the office and staff are working from home. Electronic documents and scanned documents are easily accessed from any remote location, allowing the planning process to proceed with little adaptation.
  2. Use an external Print and Post Service – In addition to being 100% paperless, the next challenge for a planning officer when working from home is how to print any out-going correspondence, when the printer is in the office. Several planning departments were already using a print and post service, and many more will be considering doing so now. This type of service effectively allows the officer to send the correspondence to a dummy printer, which picks up the files, prints and posts them at a remote location.  Thus removing the need for staff to go into the office whenever they need to print anything.
  3. Mobile Working – Despite restrictions on lockdown easing, the safety of planning staff to undertake site visits remains a priority. The technology already exists to carry out these visits using handheld or mobile devices which are connected to the back-office solution via the internet, many even allow work to progress in areas with little or no signal. Some councils have even started to use this same technology to undertake Covid-19 risk assessments in advance of site visits and recording details of the assessment in the back-office system.
  1. Implement online planning committee – Whilst many authorities have become more lenient in their levels of delegation to cope with the pandemic situation, allowing all but a few planning applications to be decided at ‘officer’ level, there are still some applications which need committee approval. There have been a few success stories where planning committees have successfully been held online using remote meeting technology. If the current situation of home working was to continue, or heaven forbid we have a second wave, more authorities will need to explore hosting committees virtually.
  2. Measure your staff’s productivity – With all staff working at home it’s difficult for a manager to truly know what each of their employees is doing throughout the day. There are often more distractions at home than you would normally experience in the workplace and for some this means a drop in employee productivity. Contrary to this, some people actually become more productive as they are saving dead-time travelling to and from work. Many planning systems have built in workflow which not only drives a high degree of efficiency and process, but can also be used to measure and compare performance and team and individual effort.
  1. Select an agile supplier – If the last few months have taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected. This coupled with the announcement from the Prime Minister of changes to planning laws and his promise of big spending to help boost the economy there are sure to be significant changes to the planning process heading our way.  As such it is an important time to be confident in your planning system supplier and be sure that they are agile enough to assist you through what is sure to be a turbulent time. With Government Digital Services Frameworks being extended by another year it may be easier than you think to switch suppliers.

Whilst these are only small steps, they are all easy to implement, and even if Boris’ plans do not amount to much, they will create a more robust infrastructure for local authorities to support the construction industry and to help give the go-ahead to projects in a faster and more seamless way.

Photo Credit – Mwitt1337 (Pixabay)

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