User-centred back office planning system to unlock transformation

Full Application: Funded

Planning services are dependent on proprietary solutions that are developing slowly and resistant to interoperability. The market is dominated by just two providers. This software does not meet the aspirations set out in the Local Digital Declaration.

The commercial incentives to support innovation are low. The practical problems associated with poor quality software create challenges for the effective administration of the national planning system, including:

  • High cost of change – projects cost >£1m to transition from one provider to another and are lengthy and resource intensive
  • Failure to meet resident’s user needs – over 40% of applications submitted via Planning Portal arrive incomplete
  • Failure to meet officer’s user needs with poor and non-responsive user interfaces
  • Hackney estimates it spends >£250,000 in administration time
  • Poor data quality affecting strategic considerations, e.g. no data showing how many families may move into a development requiring school places
  • Inability to meet the standards in the Digital Declaration and a total reliance on software roadmaps that authorities cannot influence
  • Poor integration capabilities preventing join up of integral parts of the planning system

Authorities lack a user-centred solution providing back-end case management, transactional functions and database necessary to manage a planning service. We want to understand how a cross-authority solution could unlock wider transformation of the planning system.

We intend to deliver a discovery phase for this problem in line with the GDS service manual.

Southwark intends to collaborate with the London Borough of Hackney in carrying out this discovery exercise. Regular show and tells and retrospectives will allow a wide audience to review the work carried out and ensure that it continues to meet user needs. To ensure our objectives have been met, we’ll carry out a service assessment against the government service standard at the end of the discovery phase.

While some in-house capability will be available from Southwark and Hackney, we will advertise an opportunity on the Digital Marketplace to seek a specialist partner to deliver detailed user research, technical discovery, development of options and a business case for developing an alpha product. The project must be delivered in sprints. We expect the project to last between 4 and 5 two week sprints, with valuable insights delivered and shared at the end of each sprint.

Southwark and Hackney will build on the existing relationship in the delivery of digital planning products, including the Plan X project (pre-application advice, codifying policy), the Planning Application Manager project (creating a user-centred service for submitting and viewing a planning application) and development of an open common data standard for planning applications.

The existing partnership with Future Cities Catapult will bring additional value and an external view to ensure that any solution meets wider needs and gives maximum opportunity for adoption across planning authorities.

In addition to regular blogs through the discovery phase, outputs will be published for the wider community to share the findings, stimulate debate and ensure that any progression to alpha will meet common needs across planning authorities.

England and Wales’ planning system problems are well-documented in the government’s Housing White Paper. An efficient and robust planning system will support measures to ensure we have the right homes in the right places.

The MHCLG Secretary of State, said last year:

“All planning authorities have to handle planning applications, yet there’s almost no standardization of how these are handled and presented online…My department will (support) the kind of raw data…that are useful to builders, innovators and entrepreneurs…“

Current back-office systems create significant costs. Hackney estimates it spends over £250,000 in administration time. There is a very high cost of change – lengthy and resource intensive projects cost >£1m to transition providers.

Efficient planning software that meets user needs, can be changed rapidly, is based on common and open application and data standards and removes supplier lock-in will stimulate and be a critical component of the future digital planning system. Research in the sector shows the following potential benefits:

  • Deloitte and ODI estimate that planning data would be valuable to 10 different sectors of the economy.
  • Future Cities Catapult found that planning authorities in England receive c.450,000 planning applications a year. A typical household application takes 4-7 hours to process, yet c.50% of these are returned as invalid because they lack the right information. Assuming an average salary of £50,000, £500m is wasted annually.
  • The Shakespeare Review of Open Data suggested open data has the potential to deliver a short-term £2bn injection to the UK economy (rising to £6-7bn long term)
  • Deloitte assessed the value of TfL’s open data at £130m per annum.
  • Future Cities Catapult estimated that artificial intelligence could make some decisions as effectively as trained professionals, in a fraction of the time.
  • Re-usable and open planning data with minimal human input will create new value propositions

The project builds on existing work at Hackney and Southwark to validate the common and widespread need to solve problems of digital pre-application, digital applications (minor) and consultation from a front end user perspective. Southwark and Hackney have already demonstrated significant commitment to working openly in a way that benefits the whole sector:

  • The London Planning Innovation Group, chaired by Southwark
  • The project updates are posted on LocalGovDigital Pipeline
  • Weeknotes sent to anyone who subscribes
  • More than 9 local authorities watching the councils’ work outside the formal partnership
  • The user research assets shared publicly
  • Key show & tells videoed and made available via video conference

The GLA is creating a ‘live hub’ of planning and development information, accessible to all, by reforming the information they collect and the way they collect it. GLA being a partner will ensure that the outputs are aligned to other changes in the London planning ecosystem.

Working with an external provider and the partners, the project will deliver the following outputs:

A conclusion that determines whether or not the project should proceed to alpha. The evidence included will be:

  • The scope of the service, including a “to-be” service map, tested through prototyping
  • The team and resources required to build an alpha
  • A set of metrics and KPIs to measure success
  • An overall roadmap, providing the means to pull together Southwark’s Plan X, Hackney Submit my Planning Application and the shared Open Data Standard project, funded by the Corporation of London.
  • The intended functionality, flows and technical considerations to create the new service

A user research report will be produced, including:

  • A prioritised list of user needs
  • A prioritised list of user stories
  • A list of stakeholders
  • Information about existing services

A business case will be produced, if there is evidence to support proceeding to alpha, including:

  • The cost of the current problem
  • Evidence explaining the potential benefits
  • Design principles for alpha

A technical discovery report, including:

  • Definition and proposition of an application data standard which can be used by any local authority
  • A proposed architecture that can support the seamless delivery of customer facing and case a management system
  • Areas of further work which fall outside of the scope of the project, ensuring findings are not siloed.

The central conclusions to this research will be ‘as-is’ and ‘to-be’ road maps. The technical discovery stage will then be able to give a clear understanding of how to build and scale a new back-office planning system, through tested and costed proof of concept designs. A future Alpha would then build on these findings.

The project outputs will be produced during the discovery sprints, and released when complete. User research will be shared openly in the LocalGovDigital user research library.

The discovery for this project will define the user needs of a planner. It will consider what they need to achieve on a day to day basis by documenting the data and tasks undertaken by planners. It will also consider what data may be required to inform policy and how that may interact with core application data. At all times, this discovery will be respectful of and reference  the front end user needs as defined by current, in-flight, projects ensuring a holistic view of requirements.

While the users of transactional and case management planning systems are primarily planning officers, other users and stakeholders include:

  • Applicants
  • Residents
  • Developers
  • London Government
  • Central Government

The discovery will validate this list and prioritise the user research on those users who have the primary touch points as, in a short discovery phase of a project, there is not the time to engage with a huge list of actors.This will be agreed during project inception. A number of research interviews will be set up, across users and partners.


The objective of user research is essentially to determine what the actual issues, common to all, are, and what a solution, relevant to all, might look to achieve. The results of this will then inform further work at the technical discovery stage. Research may look to establish the following:

  •        What is the extent of the problem
  •        How and where is information currently held
  •        What information and data sources are required
  • Can this data be amalgamated and standardised

We have not been applied for, or have been granted, funding for this project in the past.