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Planning authorities must transform information access

Comprehensive details of application sites must be more available

The Mineral Planning Group (MPG) often requires site information for clients contemplating acquiring or developing it. The planning status of a site is essential. It can be simple to ascertain the provisions of the development plan as they affect a site, but we might also seek information relating to: planning permissions; notices and orders served on the site; surveys or assessments; responses to consultations on applications; Section 106 or 278 agreements.
Planning records are universally kept on local authority websites. The information often goes beyond the statutory minimum set out in the General Development Procedure Order and typically includes correspondence between authorities and applicants, and consultations.
But additional information is often deleted when an application has been determined and the record moved from part one to part two of the register.  There is a relationship between information available on a planning website and that kept in the Local Land Charges Register or which can be requested under the Access to Information Act. But each has its problems. Virtually all information relating to planning applications is in the public domain and if it does not appear on the authority’s website it can be requested. But this is Stone Age technology in 2013.
It seems nonsensical to publish information then delete it simply because an application has been determined. Much is still of interest to prospective purchasers or developers. Agencies such as the Environment Agency have successfully tackled such problems and the benefits are apparent: anyone in the UK can see flood risk zones at the touch of a button, relevant to issues from property insurance to the development of major sites. 
In the 1970s many planning authorities developed systems enabing searchers to put a grid reference into a computer and get comprehensive information on that location. Advances in computer technology make this task easier.
What are the implications of the present system? It can take a long time to assemble even basic information about a site; it can seldom be achieved without visiting the authority’s office; and purchasers and developers face the cost of consultants travelling all over the country to obtain information that could easily be available at the touch of a button.
It is 18 years since the General Development Procedure Order became law and technological advances mean systems inconceivable in 1995 are now achievable. A research project that looks at best practice on local authority websites would have immense benefits.
Martin Millmore is director of the Mineral Planning Group

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