BoPS: The story of a back office planning system

jack ricketts
May 28, 2020 · 4 min read

Part One: To PD or not to PD

The London Borough of Southwark are leading a service build, together with partner authorities, Unboxed and MHCLG, to develop an alternative ‘back office planning system’ offering to council planning departments in the UK.

We are almost at the mid point of our BETA and the time when we need to make a fairly important decision.

As Michelle and I discussed in our previous post we are focusing our initial efforts on processing ‘fast track’ applications. Not a definitive term, but generally taken to mean permitted development (PD) and small-scale householder applications.

The plan at the outset was to spend the first 50% of our time on the relatively simple PD applications, whilst setting up the digital infrastructure needed for a back office system. At this point, together with partners, we would decide whether to pause the development of the PD assessment service — at the risk of not finishing what we’d started — and move on to developing a bigger service that would enable officers to also assess full householder applications. Then, at the end, use any remaining time to complete the PD work and hopefully deliver a minimum viable product that could handle both types of applications, by September 2020.

We’ve almost reached that midpoint and the time when the early plan says we should be making that decision.

However “if you finish with what you told me at the start you were going to finish with, then you’ve done it wrong”. @psd

For this reason, and given that full householder applications require all the elements and features needed to process PD applications, we have decided to spend some more time on completing the development of this service first. By doing this one thing really well, we’ll hopefully generate the support and momentum needed for the additional functionality required later on— such as consultations, site visits and conditions.

It should be noted here that we are aligned, and working closely, with Lambeth, partners and Open Systems Lab on the Reducing Invalid Planning Applications (RIPA) project. Together with PlanX this service enables the public to create and submit a validated PD application themselves. The intention being that the applications which are fed into RIPA (by members of the public) will then feed into BoPS, via an API, for planning teams to assess and decide. RIPA will be in a position to deploy this API in the next couple of months, meaning that BoPS will be able to pick up and process PD applications, as part of an end-to-end service, before the end of the year.

In summary, that road map at the start, has evolved to now look like this at the halfway point:

Change for the sake of it, or are there benefits?

  • By September 2020, together with RIPA, we will hopefully be in a position to deploy a small and non-disruptive public BETA for an MVP. This MVP will cover the end-to-end permitted development process.
  • Delivering an end-to-end service sooner will provide a valuable opportunity to learn and iterate — putting us in a stronger position when we deliver one for full permission applications later
  • The time scales for processing an application will be reduced to 24 hours (possibly faster), from the current 8 weeks
  • This will enable councils to charge for a genuinely fast track service, rather than a nominal ‘fast track’ process, should they wish
  • As identified in our discovery and alpha phases of work, there are significant savings to be made from scaling down the number of staff required to process PD applications (maybe to just one), and rebalancing the staff hours / fee income equation for these simple, but high volume, applications
  • Whilst there would initially be a requirement for departments to run two systems, the reduction in staff needed to process PD applications, and therefore use the second system, would make the impact of dual running negligible
  • There would be a reduced need for physical site visits (which seems to have rocketed up the importance chart recently!)
  • A more streamlined and transparent service would increase public and staff satisfaction
  • This could gently nudge local gov culture towards being more accepting of digital transformation, demonstrating that it needn’t be a burden on already stretched departments

Who should own BoPS? Find out in Part Two next week.

Unboxed

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