Move Towards Online Planning Applications Urgently Required

Report finds local authorities providing good access to planning documentation but more consistency required

The move towards online planning applications is urgently required to ease the administrative burden for local authorities and to create a more user-friendly experience for applicants, a new report published by the Office of the Planning Regulator, (OPR) has said.

The report also emphasises how Covid-19 restrictions have placed greater emphasis on the need to provide the public with adequate remote access to planning services.

Furthermore, the report finds that while local authorities generally provide good access to planning application documentation on their websites, there is a need for more consistency in terms how documents are displayed and accessed.

In its latest Case Study Paper, “Online Planning Services, a survey of the online availability of local authority planning application documentation, the OPR analysed the quality of accessibility of planning application information that has been made available online on local authority websites.

The analysis included the way in which documents were structured and their legibility from a sample of planning applications across the 31 local authorities.

The purpose of the report is to provide a snapshot of the current operation of online services as well as highlighting good practice examples in order to promote learning across the local government sector.

Among the report’s findings are:

  • Local authority websites generally provide good online accessibility to planning application documentation.
  • However, there are significant variations in user-experience between the different local authority websites. This is due to different ICT planning administration systems and procedures used across the local authority sector.
  • Efficient labelling or categorising of planning application documentation will reduce search time and improve customer engagement.
  • There is a strong case for moving to a standardised planning administration ‘back-office’ system to replace the three different systems used by the 31 local authorities.
  • A review of planning fees relative to operational costs would provide for financial resources to the fund the necessary improvements to online service provision for planning functions. Planning fees have remained unchanged since 2001. In 2019, (the most recent available data) planning fees amounted to less than 18% of operational costs.

Planning Regulator, Niall Cussen said,

“The pandemic put the online services offer of local authorities into sharp focus highlighting that a seamless on-line service is long overdue, particularly in relation to online planning application systems.

The planning process has become significantly more sophisticated and complex in recent years, particularly in the implementation of European Directives, which has led to an increased volume of documentation to be submitted with planning applications.

This has increased the administrative burden on local authorities to ensure that all documentation is easily accessible, legible and published in a user-friendly manner on their websites.

Ease in accessing documentation online is critical to customer confidence in the planning process and especially the public’s role in it.

There is strong customer demand for quality access to web-based planning services to augment and extend the reach of traditional ’counter’ services, i.e. in-person services at local authority offices.

This demand has been accentuated as a result of Covid-19 restrictions. The enhancement of such services is also in line with the digital transformation agenda to which Government is committed.”

The Government’s 2016 action plan for housing and homelessness, Rebuilding Ireland, included the roll-out of e-Planning to the local government sector as a key objective to support the development of online planning services.

This commitment was reaffirmed in September 2021 in the Government’s new housing plan for Ireland, Housing for All.

The legislative provisions are already in place to enable the national introduction of e-Planning as a system allowing for the online submission of planning applications and appeals, and for the collection of associated fees. The system is currently being piloted by Tipperary County Council. Housing for All sets out that the e-Planning system will be implemented nationally by early 2022.

Local authorities must publish documentation regarding decisions about planning applications online within three working days. They must publish all planning applications and accompanying documents on their website within five working days.

This is the second in a series of OPR Case Study Papers. They are issued to promote shared learning and highlight best practice in accordance with the OPR’s statutory remit to engage in education, training and research activities.