Planning department to embrace digital ways of working

Planning department to embrace digital ways of working

Smarter working and improved digital systems could help process 1,800 applications to a council’s planning department per year, a report suggests.

Today, Wigan Council’s planning department will present a report to scrutiny committee – the appointed group of councillors overseeing the effectiveness of council services – about how they will harness digital technology and improved working practices to enhance the service.

Since making changes last year, the service has implemented more electronic systems to reduce manual inputting, which will not only speed up the administration process but will allow residents and consultees to check on their applications in real time.

And now, the council is looking into the possibility of artificial intelligence and other technology systems to help process their multitude of applications in a bid to avoid delays.

Councillor Carl Sweeney, cabinet member for environment, whose brief includes the planning service, said: “The local planning service has been under immense pressure over recent years, having to meet statutory timescales while remaining open and transparent to members of the public.

“Following a reduction in the size of the service due to budget cuts and austerity, the department has had to adapt and develop new, efficient methods of working in order to deliver a timely service.

“We are committed to providing every application with the attention it deserves, however, we will continue to look into options that may free up officers’ time to ensure they can utilise their skills in the most productive way

“A restructure to the service means we have taken another look at how work can be improved and delivered more effectively.”

After establishing a support team to validate applications and deal with requests from the public and local councillors, the council will next month introduce an online public access system, allowing residents to upload responses to applications direct to the web.

Councillor Sweeney continued: “This is the first step in implementing our new way of working and this approach will continue to be updated.

“We realised that the planning department and other services within the council often provide extensive advice to prospective applicants and sometimes, this does not lead to an application at all.

“As a result, we are looking at a more structured pre-application service that may introduce a charge system, which is in line with approaches taken by other local authorities within Greater Manchester and the country. If approved by full council, the team will have the ability to give feedback on issues of significant concern from the outset and will make the planning process much smoother.”

Wigan Council will now move to a second phase of work to ensure the planning service can be effectively developed. This next phase will include a workshop with staff and users of the service to develop the work already in place and to discuss how to move forward using more technology, such as artificial intelligence.

Councillor Sweeney continued: “Receiving more than 1,200 planning applications and 600 building control applications every year, we are keen to ensure the quality skills of our planning service are effectively maintained and utilised.

“Digital services are cost effective and help us keep council tax low so we will always explore new technologies and digital infrastructure to ensure we’re providing value for money.”

Governed by legislation and statutory procedure, the planning process can generate a considerable amount of conflict and often addresses complex issues.

The service needs to deal with these issues in a timely manner, meeting statutory timescales and remain professionally objective whilst ensuring openness and transparency with the public and customers.

Find more information on the council’s planning service.

Posted on Wednesday 16th January 2019

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