Information technology and its role in planning

Information technology is central to the planning reforms agenda. But the question is who is driving who? asks Paul Kilner.

At present, an ever increasing number of planning applications are being submitted to already overloaded local planning authorities. Couple this with increasing levels of awareness and participation from the wider planning community and the net result is a universal call for quicker, more joined-up planning services that are more accessible and accountable.

This has given rise to the emergence of silver bullet planners - those who are promoting the effective use of information technology to tackle central planning issues. I count myself among them.

An RTPI event asked how information technology in planning can be used to improve the current system. It started by asking five simple questions:

- What percentage of unitary, district, borough and national park local planning authorities in England and Wales are live on the Planning Portal?

- How many are capable of receiving online applications?

- How many visitors does the Planning Portal receive in an average month?

- How many planning applications are currently handled each month by the Planning Portal?

- Fill in the missing words: "It is thanks to services such as the ****** that the UK has moved up the EU's e-government league table this year to third place in sophistication of e-services." (Cap Gemini - EU e-Services Benchmark Review 05).

The answers are: 100 per cent; 135; more than 50,000; more than 650; and "Planning Portal". The real question is what impact information technology can have on the planning reform agenda?

ODPM e-planning programme director Richard Goodwin outlined the role that the Pendleton criteria and the planning delivery grant play in driving forward the cultural change. He then discussed how this can deliver real improvements for the entire system.

The message was clear. The ODPM's e-planning blueprint for change is about business process change rather than technology, and the challenge is for the planning community to implement culture change initiatives. This is driving change in planning and information technology is simply an effective channel for its delivery.

What Planning and Regulatory Services Online (PARSOL) has developed over the past two years was outlined by Jim Worley from Melton Borough Council and PARSOL. He urged planning authorities to avoid reinventing the wheel.

The PARSOL products, tool kits, guidance and standards have been developed by local authorities for local authorities. The aim is to learn from others and to utilise best practice to deliver better services.

The challenge is to ensure that you maximise the benefits from information technology and are clear about what you want to achieve, said Richard Waite from Caps Solutions.

The art is knowing what a partnership with an information technology supplier should deliver and then working together to deliver it. Effective systems not only deliver improvements to front-of-house services, but they can also improve the manner in which the day-to-day activities of your organisation are carried out.

The Planning Casework Service is up and running, confirmed the Planning Inspectorate's Jo Fox. The inspectorate is at the forefront of e-enabling front-of-house services, but it started internally and is changing the way in which the organisation delivers its key services through the effective use of technology.

The role that mapping systems can play in introducing spatial elements to e-planning was outlined by Robin Waters from RSW Geomatics. This is an issue for the planners and the planning systems of tomorrow. Geo-mapping can play a key role in the effective delivery of services.

Finally, who is driving who?

- Planning is driving information technology to deliver better services in a joined-up manner.

- Information technology is delivering effective office solutions.

- The potential that geo-mapping has in the effective delivery of planning services is something that will become increasingly relevant when planning for the future.

Paul Kilner is director of the Planning Portal.

- See Planning, 30 September, p14, 21 October, p17 and 28 October, p23.

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