Re-Designing Planning Application Advice

Full Application: Not funded at this stage

All local planning authorities face a common problem in terms of significant numbers of the applications found to be invalid.  This is frustrating for service users and an unnecessary cost for all involved.

We don’t fully understand why users struggle to submit valid applications; whether they have the necessary tools, incentives or knowledge or how accessible they find the system.

This discovery seeks to answer these questions, getting to the root cause of problems and identifying options for resolving. It’ll bring key providers and service users together to gain evidence and insights into the reasons behind the problem.

Many authorities’ processes require manual data entry and reconciliation, they struggle to offer timely responses and face challenges providing accessible upfront advice. We want to address these problems, meet user needs and ensure delivery of high quality development.

Our objectives are to publish user research that:

  • Explains the reasons why applications are invalid
  • Identifies existing costs and opportunities through better, integrated and digital services
  • Describes the users needs, including the publication of validation information requirements
  • Provides prototypes for a digital pre-application advice service, linked with a planning application service, and including front end patterns

Considers the required technology, content design, legislative or regulatory changes and other relevant work being done to resolve this problem.

This discovery will be delivered by the partner councils and the Planning Portal, working alongside specialists procured through the Digital Marketplace and funded by the Local Digital Fund. We’ll recruit additional Local Authority partners to ensure we have access to many types of local planning authority.

Each authority will provide data and associated resources including the involvement of planning officers to support the work of the digital teams. Wokingham will lead the project, provide project management and assume responsibility for the project outcomes.

We’ll work alongside the Planning Portal to review online applications and carry out user research to highlight barriers to submitting valid applications.  We’ll also work with the development industry and planning agents, such as the Barriers to Development LEP sponsored group in Gloucestershire.

Deadline Event / activity Milestone
14 December 2018 Set up project governance and the Ethics Policy for User Research amongst partner organisations

Advertise opportunity through Digital marketplace

Organise training

Project started
11 January 2019 Data analysis and information gathering

Detailed project planning

Baselining and data gathering completed
25 January 2019 Core team established, people allocated to the project

Appoint organisation to conduct analysis/research

Team complete training

Team formed and ready to start discovery
8 February 2019 Initial research through observation, interviews and data analysis Version 1 of user research report and business case
22 February 2019 Test preliminary conclusions Version 2 of user research report and business case
8 March 2019 Draft prototype outputs Version 1 of prototypes and recommendation report
22 March 2019 Test preliminary outputs Version 2 of prototypes and  recommendation report
29 March 2019 Publish project findings

  • Business case
  • User research report
  • Prototypes
  • Recommendation report
Discovery outputs produced and shared


335 LPAs in England handle over 100,000 applications per year. Planning services make up 3% of the net expenditure by local authorities, a total of £1.1bn.

The Planning Portal handles 90% on-line applications (c.2,200 daily) and 900K web visitors per month.

User research from Planning Portal and partner LPAs is a huge opportunity to tackle invalid applications and create user focused advice.

Applicants want effective pre-application advice.  LPAs generally create their own solutions, rarely integrated with back office or payment systems or with forms capable of collecting all the information required to provide an immediate response, resulting in further work.

The administration overhead of manual data entry and reconciliation is a significant cost to local planning authorities and delays the response to the applicant. Meanwhile, a significant number of invalid planning applications continue to be submitted.

By resolving this problem, at source, LPAs would all benefit from controlling the costs relating to planning advice and invalid applications. They would free resources to ensuring high quality development within their locality and provide better outcomes to residents.

Applicants and agents would benefit from a user friendly and responsive process that is timely and cost effective. They would benefit from greater certainty from the development management system with high quality locality specific advice on prospective development. We expect that this would improve the productivity of major construction projects and reduce the costs associated with householder development.

This project will also deliver broader benefits to local government, by promoting user needs as a means to improving services. This discovery will start to embed user research as a critical starting point for decision making around service delivery. The use of this qualitative and quantitative data will provide better informed decisions and improved outcomes.


Working as a partnership of LPAs and the Planning Portal means our work will be highly relevant, widely shared and of great impact.

We’ll also consider the outputs of similar projects working in this area as part of our recommendations and share our findings with them.

Each partner will contribute to the project, provide data and share learning. We’ll use collaborative tools and services to share and manage the work backlog, meetings and documentation.

We’ll test our findings with our own planning officers, service users other interested parties to ensure they are consistent and valid across other planning authorities.

We’ll work in the open by publishing updates through the LocalGov Pipeline, regular online show and tells, and through blogs, enabling others to stay informed on its progress.

We’ll build on existing relationships with other relevant organisations such as the Planning Officer’s Society to promote our findings at conferences and publications at a National level.

By the end of March 2019 we will produce the following outputs:

Output Action
Business case Our work will create a costed business case for all the partner councils, which can be reused by other LPAs wishing to transform their pre-planning service. We expect the business case to quantify:

  • The volume, type and costs of invalid planning applications across each council
  • The volume, costs and income of pre-planning applications and across each council and potential for extending services.
  • The user needs to be addressed

The business case will be supported by research involving all partner councils providing a varied range of users, as detailed in Question 6. It will determine what the user need is for this service, both from the public and the council and inform development roadmaps. After the initial data analysis, we’ll draft a preliminary business case and continue to iterate this until publishing it at the end of the discovery.

User research report We will publish a report that outlines the user needs of a digital, integrated planning pre-application advice service. This would outline:

  • who our users are
  • our users’ needs and how we’re meeting them
  • needs we’re not meeting

After the initial research, we’ll draft a preliminary report and continue to iterate this until publishing it at the end of the discovery.

A summary report & recommendations We will produce a report that recommends the next steps for this work. It’ll conclude whether there are sufficient unmet user needs and business case to continue. It will also highlight any necessary technology or suggested changes to planning legislation. We will produce this during the final week of the discovery .
Prototypes We will produce an authority and technology agnostic draft business process with draft front-end design patterns to provide a toolkit for each council. After the initial research, we’ll draft a preliminary report and continue to iterate this until publishing it at the end of the discovery.


As a collaborative project, we’ve already started using digital communication tools. We’ll continue to trial them as part of discovery and consider how they could be of value in reaching out to and responding to particular user needs.

The use of face to face interviews with service users is critical to the discovery work and will enable a much deeper understanding of how customers access and use the planning system.

Work will be undertaken to establish who are service users are but broadly include:

Our users are

  • Anyone proposing to make a planning application
  • Agents of anyone proposing to make a planning application
  • Councillors
  • Planning officers

We will engage with users by:

  • Engaging a user researcher and business analyst
  • Interviews with planning officers and councillors in partner organisations
  • Data analysis of invalid planning applications from partner LPAs and the Planning Portal
  • Observation of planning application submissions
  • Workshops to test ideas and direction
  • Process map the ‘as-is’ and ‘to-be’ processes

We will also build capabilities within our partner Councils by:

  • Building relationships with Government Digital Services or similar organisation for training and support on user research and agile working
  • Promote user research as a core competency for Councils

The proposed research objectives will be to answer the following questions:

  • What qualitative and quantitative data is available?
  • What are the reasons for invalid applications?
  • How open and accessible is the current service and process?
  • What pre-application service do councils already offer?
  • What are the costs for the current service?
  • What are the user needs being met by the service?
  • What are the user needs not currently being met by the service?
  • What savings and additional revenue might be generated by better meeting user need?
  • What other research or work in this area is relevant to the user needs?
  • What technology exists that may help with delivering a better service?

We want to build a relationship with Government Digital Services to gain training and insights into the value of user research and how to use it to inform service design and redesign.

  • We would like support in the following areas:
  • Promotion of our work through your existing communication channels with local planning authorities
  • Advice using the digital marketplace to secure specialist support
  • Training in agile, user research and customer personas

All of this is sought in order to embed as core capability within Councils to support effective service design work which directly respond to identified user needs.


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