I went to the “future of the planning portal” event today at Eland House. These are a few notes from the event, in case you couldn’t make it. I’ll save my own take on things for another day – these are the honest reportings of the offical note-taker and reporter-backer for my table (I had to volunteer as I was there under slightly false pretenses).
The format was two round-table sessions, each of which was followed by a plenary session with each table reporting back in a strict 2 minute ‘elevator pitch’ kind of way. We covered several questions which allowed us to think around the issues:
- How do you use the portal ?
- What works well (and less well) ?
- What would you want from a commercial model ?
- What is the impact of change ?
- Developing a commercial model
Although these different questions worked well in helping us develop our thoughts we didn’t necessarily do them in this order. While I was there scribbling for my table here is my attempt to synthesise what I heard from the various elevator pitches combined:
The Portal is part of the way we do things now
The Portal has become an essential part of the online presence of councils. Not just for online applications but official (DCLG) and ancilliary guidance (PD house). All councils praised the way it had become the national single source for information most of which was up-to-date and written in an accessible way. We all signpost to the portal. And everyone accepted that it would feel like a retrograde step to move away from online.
The only part of it that was less important to us was the appeals side, but that might be because it would be someone else’s problem if it disappeared.
The Portal’s job is not easy
It’s not perfect, but it does a good job at keeping things working. I could sense some sympathy as the Portal (despite the fact it sits within DCLG) is often visibly playing catch-up with the latest bright idea to change things.
It definitely works best for smaller, simpler things and can struggle with complex big applications.
The Portal is not perfect
As you might expect when you get a group of planners and technicians together there was a long string of whinges. Some of which are ancient and baffling (payments ! in 2013 !) and some of which are probably bigger than the portal (SUDS). Alongside these were a bunch of operational problems that are clear indicators that there isn’t a strong feedback loop (Counties’ needs, NMA, amendments generally, poor quality integrations, naming conventions).
We trust the Portal and its people
Despite all this we know the portal is on our side. Its people (namecheck Scott) are respected and the information it provides is part of the furniture. Their summaries and precis of change saves us time and work reading everything for ourselves.
One repeated problem we acknowledged was how to continue with this trust. The portal works best as a monopoly, and you can imagine a commercial offer that started with a £2.50 / application charge. We (privately) acknowledged that the portal saved us money and might even be able to pay this. How could we stop this turning into £7.50 / application within a few years ? It is in the nature of monopolies to gouge their users [I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the room reeling from the irony].
We care about it
We began by saying that the loss of the Portal would be a disaster. After a while, we remembered that it is in the DNA of councils to cope and that somehow we would go on. But we would really miss its role in educating users. And, while there would be an appetite to reinvent it in some way, we acknowledged the difficulty of herding the many and various councils into a common endeavour.
Towards a sustainable service
We tried a bit to offer suggestions on how it might begin to operate as a cost neutral business, but we didn’t really offer anything startling. Perhaps it could be trimmed a bit, maybe there were more ways it could sell ancillary services.
“We can’t Pay” and “We won’t pay” were repeated refrains throughout the whole event but it was clear that councils had not ever really thought before about cost and value. Because we’d been volunteered en masse for this online experiment without every really needing to put our hands in our pockets it was difficult to have an honest appraisal of its worth today.
It was very clear that councils had been cut off from the management and strategic thinking about the portal many years ago. It was heartening to hear an eagerness to help even if there was a learning curve about what was (and was not) possible from where we are now.
From the Q&A and closing remarks I took these points:
- We all have taken the portal for granted (I think this meant DCLG also)
- Despite the moans Councils support the portal (and online) and don’t want to go backwards
- Councils have not had a mechanism for getting their voices heard about the portal
- Councils wanted to be an active partner in the process of making a decision about the portal
- It was still worth getting engaged, as no decision had been made (and indeed the criteria for a decision hadn’t been created)
- Trust was a key issue, trebly so because of the monopoly provision
There are going to be other sessions. The portal is a big deal for councils so I recommend you get engaged and make your opinions known.