An irreverent look at some of the hot topics in planning. All commentary is given in good faith but does not constitute advice! For specific help on planning matters, please contact us.

Travel back in time with the Planning Portal…

November 24th, 2012

A few years ago, a young upstart on the graduate entry programme told the mandarins in Whitehall about this wonderful new fangled thing called the world wide internet super highway and how it could change the world. Most of the boffins just harrumphed loudly and then settled back to sipping sherry and reading the Financial Times. It WAS after 4pm, after all.

At the back of the room however, one of the mandarins took a moment to absorb the news of this new development. Perhaps, yes perhaps, this youngster was onto something. Perhaps this was the thing that would change the world’s view on bureacracy. Better still, perhaps this could make his own profession, planning, popular and sexy……

…and the Planning Portal was born.

Save paper, time and money by submitting planning applications on-line. A simple message. Who could not just love it?

Well me, for a start. I detest it.

Take the application submission interface. Yes, please take the interface. If you can find it. The portal itself been designed by a government department with graphic design abilities that Captain Blackadder would describe as akin to “Ten colour blind hedgehogs. In a bag.” It is about as inspiring as a week old caesar salad and is marginally less intuitive. It takes so long to complete the endless forms that if you started one today, by the time you get to the end of it Scotland will be independent and Greece will be using the Drachma.

Then there is the restrictions that it imposes. Plans and documents cannot be more than 5MB in size, so larger reports need to be split into several parcels and some poor administrator the other end has to rebuild them like some kind of mind numbing jigsaw puzzle. In this world of fibre optic internet connections why is it that the planning portal thinks local authority systems can cope only with the file sizes generated by A3 monochrome plans?

The most ridiculous thing of all however is that if you upload a plan to the portal you need to confirm that you have printed the plan out at its original size before sending it. So, the paperless application system requires me to print off a full size copy of a plan that I do not want. Very eco, Mr planning portal dude. Of course, by asking me that question, it also assumes that someone else will be printing the plans. Even more eco friendly.

So to the fees. Just to get the nationalist point out first, the statutory fees that the portal generates for applications in Wales are just plain wrong. It is as though it has applied an exchange rate to the English Pound. Perhaps it knows something about independence for Wales that I don’t.

In terms of actually making payments, we were told at one training session for the portal that all we needed to do was to put credit card details into the website and bingo, all done. The planning portal dude was slightly taken aback when we pointed out that not a single person in the company had a limit that could support the £50,000 application fee for our next submission.

No problem he said, just post a cheque…. Sounds simple? One would think so, but it is no easy task getting the cheque reconciled with the online application. That isn’t surprising given that some authorities tell me that they get applications where the cheque never appears at all. Yes, somewhere out there there are people submitting applications on the Planning Portal as a joke. Oh, how they must chuckle…..

The final moan of the day is what happens with my electronic submission the other end. It is like the planning portal dudes were told to create a webpage, not a system for processing planning applications.

The whole raison d’etre of submitting on-line is that it is faster and you don’t need to chop down a forest the size of Wales (forests are measured in multiples thereof) to get an application registered.

The reality is however that some local authorities seem to want all that paper. I have no idea why. Perhaps they need the paper to fire up their wood stove heating. Maybe they need to prop up damaged furniture and there are not enough brick samples in the office to do the job. For whatever reason, I have yet to submit a major application without someone calling up for ten additional hard copies – and sounding very indignant when I protest.

In most cases I am told that it is because certain consultees apparently don’t have the facilities to read the electronic copies already submitted. With few exceptions, that’s just laziness in my view. The planning system has moved into the new century (just about) and consultees ought to catch up. I was told by the planning portal dude to refuse to supply hard copies to authorities that request them. Great idea but triggering the wrath of the parish council isn’t usually a good idea.

So why do I use it if I detest it so much? Aside from the very marginal environmental benefits, that is? Perhaps there is some slightly perverse pleasure in knowing that the submissions are often greeted the other end by exclamations of “Oh hell it’s another one of those electronic applications”.

More likely its because whether one likes it or not, e-submissions are the way of the future. Only by showing the boffins that it being used and is here to stay can we drag them up to the plate and force them to deliver us a modern system that achieves those original objectives.