Harnessing the digital revolution in planning

Brett Leahy , Wednesday 16 June 2021

Some may say the planning and building control professions are very traditional and therefore have been slow to embrace digital technology, I would like to disprove this misnomer by sharing the innovation that is already making a difference to the planning and building control teams.

We all want to find ways of:

  • increasing capacity of our staff/teams
  • empowering our residents and staff
  • having more time to deliver tangible outcomes

For me this is a constant endeavour that I am keen for us to crack.

The challenge: Bringing artificial intelligence to the fore

Operating with a modest-sized team of 70, a significant amount of staff time is taken up dealing with day-to-day calls and emails, reviewing plans and fulfilling general administrative tasks – all of which reduces their ability to focus on the wider strategic aims of driving the ambitions of the council.

The ambition? To not only introduce an artificial intelligence customer-facing interface to answer general enquiries, but also to develop a system that had the capabilities to review and validate applications and in the future assess permitted development applications – this level of functionality would bring significant benefits.

The solution: A human approach to tech innovation

Introducing artificial intelligence to planning and building control is no mean feat. As a highly-skilled profession, the service had to be able to deal with technical questions and complex scenarios.

As a result, there are three key outputs:

  1. Building a customer-facing Chatbot – populating answers to citizen FAQs
  2. Introducing intelligence – offering citizen self-service with the Chatbot responding to queries in real time and escalating to Planning and Building Control Officers where necessary
  3. Delivering validation and recognition – end-to-end automation enabling the review, response, classification and retrieval of planning and building control applications

The Chatbot went live in October 2019, with the artificial intelligence validation following shortly (June 2021). The council is already witnessing promising results, including:

  • An average of 380 conversations per month via the Chatbot – meaning 380 less conversations by phone  and email.
  • A 9% reduction in phone calls received by customer services per week – a figure expected to rise in line with accelerated channel shift
  • 169 working days per member forecasted to be saved on assessing applications via artificial intelligence validation

And through such effective channel shift, landmark changes have been introduced to drive an enhanced public service, meaning:

  • Citizens can get answers to general planning questions in a timely, hassle-free manner
  • Applications can be automatically reviewed and approved quicker, freeing officer time and providing a better service to applicants
  • Reallocate valuable hours per week to work on the wider, strategic aims

The future: A blueprint for planning

The true marker of innovation lies in the fact that the council has developed a blueprint for other local authorities.

In terms of the validation via artificial intelligence, the council is already working on expanding the functionality to automate the dispatch of update notifications to citizens and subsequent referral to an officer and auto-index documents at the back end. Continued investment in feeding the Chatbot and growing its knowledge base will also only add to its future resilience.

Ultimately, this kind of ground-breaking, creative thinking represents the ‘holy grail’ for planning and building control authorities across the country. Being able to sustain demand while resource continually diminishes is one of the biggest challenges facing every local authority and every service – here, we’ve shown how artificial intelligence technology, partnership and innovation, can help the sector overcome these challenges.