2. Approaches taken so far

Publishing validation checklists, guides and fee calculators on websites

Most councils provide these on their websites. They are reported to make some difference, but very little, since these themselves are often missed, and users are not sure which requirements apply to their project. They also put the burden onto users to be aware-of, find and wade-through even more documents, even though this was part of the problem in the first place.

Machine-learning software that automatically checks documents

For example, Milton Keynes Council have demonstrated the use of image-recognition software to identify and check drawings by type. Other similar approaches might include teaching algorithms to read the contents of reports. This is technically very impressive, and may be useful in some areas, but as a general approach to the whole problem it would be a very complex, laborious and expensive way to solve the problem ‘downstream’ (with limited reliability) instead of intervening upstream to avoid mistakes in the first place.

Web forms with field validation

In the world of digital services the standard approach to solving this problem is to use a web form with ‘field validations’. Almost every digital service we use in our day to day lives uses this approach. The most common example of this might be a text field in a form that is marked with an * , meaning that the field cannot be left blank.

This is hugely effective in that it communicates to the user what is required, and actively prevents the submission of an invalid form. However, most digital services require relatively little information, and the required information is the same for all users (‘one form fits all’).

This is not the case for planning. Planning requires large volumes of information, and what information is required will depend on many factors, such as project size, location and the nature of what is proposed. It is also subject to change from time to time and from local council to local council. Conventional, hard-coded linear forms are too limited in scope to deal with this, a flexible dynamic form structure is required.

The project that has so far advanced the furthest in developing such a service is ‘Submit My Planning Application’, developed by Hackney Council, working with Snook and Hacktar. This project showed extraordinary promise as a step towards the future, not least in being the first to achieve the milestone of allowing users to submit a digital site boundary instead of a site drawing.