Saturday 21 March 2020

Brent Council to ask software provider to improve public access to planning documents

Below is the outcome of my complaint to Brent Council referring to the difficulty of accessing planning documents for a major planning application in February. LINK I do not agree with the findings re availability of the reports but have decided not to take it further. In the present coronavirus crisis council officers have other urgent matters to deal with.

I do welcome the undertaking to ask for improvements  to the software for the  public access system tso as to allow users to copy and share links to specific documents. This is not just beneficial but, in terms of informing the public via this blog about major applications, of vital importance and clearly in the public interest.

Complaint about Performance Improvement
This letter is my decision on your complaint under our complaints procedure.

You have summarised your complaint as follows:
1. The unavailability of the Agenda for the February 18th Planning Committee on the Democracy section of the Council’s website on Monday February 17th 
2. The unavailability of the Deloitte Financial Viability Report (including the Strutt Parker marketing report) on the Brent Planning Portal on Monday February 17th. This referred to 18/4920 due to be discussed at the February 18th Planning Committee.
3. Inaccuracies in planning officers’ reports corrected by last minute Supplementary Reports to Planning Committee.  In this case specifically the corrected table for Major Adverse affect on Daylight for neighbouring properties, (Corrected from 5% to 23.3%)

In relation to point 2, you have said that have said that the Planning Committee chair incorrectly referred to “dead links” being used, and that you do not consider that this was the case.  In relation to all points, you have also asked for a review of staffing levels and proposals to make the website and portal more efficient.

I have evaluated the matters that you have raised.

Availability of Planning Committee agenda
The agenda for the 18 February Planning Committee meeting was published on 10 February.  We do not have a record of the web site being unavailable on the 17th and we checked the committee services pages when were made aware of the comment that it was unavailable and found that the agenda was available at that time.  I am not sure why you couldn’t access the agenda when you tried to access it on the 17th.

With regard to the Financial Viability report, we checked the planning application documents for that application on our web site and your link when you reported that the link that you had shared did not work.  We found that the web site was working and the document was accessible (i.e. it could be downloaded from our web site) but the link that you shared was not.  We tested the links that we had provided to the application, including the links within the consultation letter, site notice and the committee report.  These all worked.  The Chair was advised of this and he commented on this at the start of the committee meeting.

We have looked into this further following the receipt of your complaint.  We have found that all documents are accessible if one uses the link to the application record (i.e. the full record of the planning application).  However, we found that if one copies a link directly to a document (e.g. right clicking that document and selecting “copy link”) then this link will only work if the user is already on a web page within our planning public access system.  So, the links that we provide within consultation letters, reports, etc, do work.  However, if an individual copies and then shares the link to the specific document (as you did) then this doesn’t work.  We were not aware of this.  We tested this on other Council websites that use the same system (around 90 % of Planning Authorities in England use the same system) and found that the same issue was evident on their web site.  This is therefore an issue with the software.

The documents were available throughout this time using the links that we provided and were publicly available.  However, we understand that some users may want to save or share links to specific documents.  We have raised this with the external software provider and have asked them to resolve this issue within their system.  We will also place a message on our system notifying people that they should not share links to individual documents.

You have also raised concern regarding changes to the amendment to the daylight and sunlight figures that were updated in the Supplementary Report.  It was reported that the tables setting out the full (window-by-window) details in relation to daylight and sunlight impacts within the supporting reports were correct, but that a summary table included some incorrect information.  A revised copy of the summary table was included in the supplementary report which showed that the number of windows for which there would be a Major Adverse effect on sunlight was greater than was reported in the previous version of the table, and both the previous and the corrected results were shown.  You have commented that you consider that this would affect the public’s right to know information regarding the planning application and their ability to respond in time.

The information relating to sunlight received by each window within the supporting reports for the application was correct, and it was a part of the summary table that was incorrect.  Should a resident wish to see the level of impact on sunlight received by a window of their home, this information was correct.  When making a decision on the application, members were aware of the level of the impact on affected windows and made their decision on this basis.  While it would have been preferable for this to be highlighted earlier, it is considered that potentially affected surrounding residents were able to consider the impact of the proposal on their amenities and members properly considered the balance of impacts and benefits.

Having reviewed the concerns that you have raised, I consider that processes were correctly followed.  However, I do believe that improvements to the public access system to allow uses to copy and share links to specific documents would be beneficial and we have asked the software provider to resolve this.  With regard to your comment that a review of staffing is undertaken, we currently consider that while staff are typically busy, staff levels are adequate at present.  Nevertheless, we are continually reviewing and improving the way that we work to that staff can work effectively and efficiently.

I hope that my investigation and this letter have resolved your complaint. If you do have any remaining concerns please feel free to contact me to discuss them. If you remain dissatisfied you can ask for a final review of your complaint to be done on behalf of the Council’s Chief Executive. You will need to explain in detail why you consider that my response has not resolved your complaint. You should make your request for a review within 8 weeks of the date of this letter and address it to: 
The Complaints Service Team,
Brent Civic Centre
Engineers Way

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