Campaign option No.5: Revamping planning application portals

It’s an occupational hazard, running a media outlet such as Place Design Scotland: there is never any shortage of ideas, including potential campaigns and projects. We have decided to let the readers decide which one we should seriously consider pursuing, and will be launching a poll of members in due course. Our fifth candidate is… drum roll, please… Revamping planning application portals

THERE is a strong argument that the planning application portals operated by local authorities up and down the country require to be re-shaped, to be made much, much easier to use.

It might begin by making the search functionality much more intuitive.

It would potentially continue by seeking to distinguish between applications ‘of significance’ and those of a much more modest nature. For most people in most villages, towns and cities, it is the ‘big’ proposals that will matter most, yet the current portal design does not make any concession to this – lumping the potentially redefining with the relatively small-scale domestic.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility for a separate column to be created, configured as a news feed, highlighting applications of potential significance. This would involve somebody’s time.

Unfortunately, the shortcomings of the current design do not stop at search functionality, which is further hamstrung by expecting quite a lot of prior knowledge (such as a reference number) on the part of the reader.

Once into an application, the reader is then invited to click ‘supporting documents’ (uncertain how safe it is to ‘click’), which usually then requires an architect’s understanding of drawings and spreadsheets.

At no point is an application accompanied by answers (displayed separately) to the types of questions that might exercise most folk: such as carbon footprint, maintenance and repairs regime, training opportunities, car parking implications, biodiversity, massing and facades, and – in the particular case of housing – the estimated walking time to the nearest pint of milk, school, GP practice, pub, etc.

Demanding answers to simple questions would potentially serve to put on the record what the applicant is promising to do, to be set against what is eventually delivered.

We next come to the facility to comment. It’s impossible to view other people’s comments, and that will be almost certainly because of concerns about tone.

Certainly, any system that is mainly about submitting objections risks being a difficult read.

But proper moderation – again, requiring somebody’s time – and a redesigned format could easily create a forum for a genuinely constructive and respectful exchange of views.

And then we get to the crux: reporting the outcomes of applications. It simply doesn’t happen.

Again, that would involve paying for a person’s time, but if a local authority is committed to transparency, it requires the adjudication process – like justice – being seen to be done.

Mike Wilson is a member of the Place Design Scotland team

Pictured: Haymarket, Edinburgh – was once a ‘planning application of significance’, Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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