Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Comhairle leaps into 21st century

I've often found the website of the Comhairle (the council of the Outer Hebrides) a disappointment. Very 1990's in style, and with a searching system that is not helpful, it's difficult to find specific materials on there. Most of the time, stuff I've been looking for and hoping to find online hasn't been there.

However, as reported in this weeks Stornoway Gazette, one part of the website has taken a big leap forward.

Enabled by legislation, the Comhairle has been developing an online service for planning applications and the wider process of planning, scrutiny and objecting, similar to the online service that covers all of England and Wales. The fruits of their labour are now online, free and available for anyone to see.  The bulk of this information is planning applications, warrants, letters of support, letters of objection, receipts, certificates and lots of other things (even, in some cases, correspondance to Comhairle staff long after the application) - totalling millions of pages and stretching back several years. All can be downloaded and scrutinised; information is ordered according to property and/or application.

I'll use, as an example, a bit of modernisation done on my house by the previous owners. If you're on dial-up, this will take you some time as all the files are in PDF format; broadband is much better.

Go to the Comhairle Planning Service page and select the Online Planning Information option. You'll come through to something called PublicAccess.

Now click on planning. You've got several different types of searches you can do, including application searches and enforcement searches. The "Property Search" is the way to get at the bulk of the data. Select that, and you get this:


I found the postcode search option was a bit frustrating, but the scrollable street list proved better. For Berneray, the main options are "Backhill", "Rushgarry" and "Borve" (there may be others). In my case, select Backhill, Berneray. Go and find my house (An Caladh), which is the 19th entry (it's on page 2 of the results). Important: be aware that there can be multiple entries for the same property or ground. For example, under "Rushgarry, Berneray", there are seperate records for Berneray School grounds, Berneray School, and "Bin enclosure". So it's wise to check all the listed entries for a particular road or area if you are looking for something specific.

Select "Click to view details" next to the property title:


You'll get the address details of my property. Click on "Related info". If it says something like "There is 1 (or 2 or 3) related records" then there's been an application, work, or something else in the last few years. Click on "Display" to find out what kind of record it is, the do "click to view" to get more details on the application. You'll get a screen with a large tab bar:


Go to the last option on the tab bar, "Associated Documents", and click through. Here is where you'll find the content that's been scanned in. It's all in PDF format, and often there are thumbnails available:


In the case of my property, it's 23 items / pages concerning the installation of 2 windows and a bathroom, including a building warrant, receipts, correspondance between the Comhairle, previous owners of my hoose and their solicitor, plans, cost estimates, approval letters, and other stuff.

And that particular application was simple. Find a complex application, or one where there's been letters of objection, and there's often dozens or hundreds of pages of scanned-in material.

Full credit to the Comhairle for this service:

  1. It creates a "level playing field" in terms of information access. People who work for a living have limited time and opportunities to go down to the council offices (sometimes a long way out) and find this information, as opposed to people who don't work and spend all their waking hours obsessing on personal planning campaigns. Now it's online, 24/7.

  2. For the same reason, it's environmentally friendly. Less car journeys involving residents going to and from Comhairle offices.

  3. It's cheaper for the Comhairle - and therefore residents in the form of local tax payers - in the long run, as staff are not tied up dealing with so many requests for information.

  4. It's an extra encouragement for people to acquire basic online skills. You don't need to be a teccie or geek to get to the information; the interface is pretty much "select and click". Free or cheap net access, if you don't have a PC at home, is available to all residents in the public libraries and various centres and facilities through the Outer Hebrides.

  5. It hinders liars and scammers in the property market. Interested in buying a property but aren't convinced by what the owner has said about recent work on it? Before forking out for solicitors fees, search the database first.

  6. Ditto, it cripples uber-gossips. "Oooooh, do you know what Donald MacDonald is having done to his house? It's all leather panelling inside and it's costing him 50 thousand pounds and planning have turned a blind eye because his cousin Donald empties the planning officers septic tank for free in the middle of the night." Click, click, click. Uber-gossip = liar. 

  7. There's much more - truthful - information about building work online. Like what someone has had done to a house? Check it online, and you can see what has been done, and possibly who did it.

  8. Ditto, by checking out similar works to ones you are thinking of doing yourself, you can get a good idea of the complexity, requirements, restrictions and possible hurdles to overcome. Do your research online and it could save you a lot of money in architect, legal and other fees.

  9. It's a natural progression from a few years ago, when prices paid for property sales became freely available online. A neighbour in the previous village I lived in, who was prone to telling large porkies about anything financial, whined endlessly about this on the grounds that potential buyers of her house would be able to find out what she paid for it, rather than rely on what she told them. Good.

  10. The process of planning is easier and quicker all round, for all concerned.

Above all, it reduces Information Asymmetry.

It's nearly 2008. Other countries, such as Japan, South Korea and all of Scandinavia, are some way ahead of the UK in terms of the effective use of online technology. The Freedom of Information Act (2002) has gone part of the way to making information more available here, but has severe problems such as:

  • it ties up staff time (paid for by us taxpayers) in dealing with information requests which are often a time-consuming administrative nightmare

  • it costs money to undertake requests, thus giving advantage to funded information seekers

  • information retrieved is still "closed" in terms of how the retriever uses it

Consequently, this online planning database is a good model of open information for other departments in the Comhairle to follow; I gather there is some progress in some of these departments. It's also a good model for other organisations who serve the residents / taxpayers of the Outer Hebrides. I wonder - and am not the first person to suggest this by a long way - how different the Western Isles NHS board would be in operation if they made much of their internal correspondance, minutes and other documents available online as policy?

It doesn't let the Comhairle off the fact that their main website - and especially the search mechanism within - is still wanting. But this online service is a really good step in the right direction.


  1. Everyone in the public sector should work on the basis that everything they say or do is in the public domain (with limited exceptions) and everyone who deals with the public sector should expect unfettered access to that information.I had to put the Comhairle report on the proposed Harris-Berneray causeway onto my blog in September 2006 as the Comhairle hadn't put it on their website - and as far as I can tell they still haven't.Openness is so much easier; but the public sector seems still have a latent desire to hide everything away, until they have to make it public.

  2. 'fraid your predictions re the stability of it all came true. Early too - as a request for a document relating to my house comes up with a lovely big 404.Yes, it's a step forward and (although I can't access it, I'll believe for the moment) there's loads of useful info on there, but it still looks like something my 2 1/2 year old daughter drew with her Crayolas on a bad day, doesn't work too well under ff in linux and doesn't fit in at all with the main council website. It all seems half-arsed to me. I know it'll have cost a huge chunk of council-tax payers' change, and it's a potentially great service, but the Comhairle really need to be serious about their online offerings and get the whole site sorted out properly, from scratch. It really is one of the worst websites on the internet. Anywhere.

  3. Well, I don't think this is good for everyone. If my neighbour cannot make stuff up because the facts are all on the inter net, what on earth will she talk about with her friends all day?

  4. Further investigation - the site works as intended under IE in Windows. Again, more evidence pointing towards my half-arsed judgement.