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COVID-19: lessons learned

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of us in a number of different ways. For the planning sector it presented unique challenges around how to deliver a service that often included face-to-face consultation and collaboration.

In April 2020 the Scottish Government began engaging with Heads of Planning Scotland (HoPS) to understand the challenges that planning authorities faced in keeping the planning system running during the pandemic, including the challenges presented by social distancing and remote working.

This work informed the preparation of a Chief Planner letter to guide authorities on operating in these challenging circumstances and is informing development of Scotland's Digital Strategy for Planning.

Working with authorities

Following this period of early engagement we held a series of five online workshops, each focusing on a different planning authority function. These functions were the primary issues identified through collaboration with Heads of Planning Scotland.

These workshops helped us to better understand the challenges across each function, and to discuss the practices being undertaken by authorities to meet them.

The workshops covered:

  • Paper applications
  • Payment
  • Neighbour notification
  • Site notice
  • Site visits / building inspections

23 planning authorities participated in the workshops covering a variety of functions and levels of seniority, from head of service to operational staff. This broad mix of individuals allowed us to gather a wide range of perspectives on how digital and data could be effectively used to support operation of the planning system during COVID-19.

Understanding the challenges

Paper Applications

Accepting and processing paper applications has been a significant challenge for authorities during COVID-19, with lockdown restrictions meaning most planning and building standards staff were working from home from April 2020.

While many authorities steered applicants towards making applications online during COVID-19, some applicants prefer to submit paper applications. The position had improved in the three subsequent months as planning authorities found new ways to address this, with 65% of authorities processing paper applications in July compared to 58% in March.

However COVID-19 has served to highlight the challenges of an analogue (non-digital) handling process.


With many planning and building standards staff working remotely due to the pandemic, many planning authorities made changes to the payment methods they accept and the means of processing payment.

  • 13% of authorities added the ability to pay by BACS
  • 66% removed the ability for applicants to make over the counter payments
  • 20% removed the ability for applicants to make telephone payments

Many issues, validated from earlier user research undertaken by the Digital Planning team, were reaffirmed via the workshops.

These included the challenges faced in taking secondary payment, and reconciliation of multiple payments across multiple systems.

Site Notices

Site notice changes over lockdownAt the start of April only 29% of planning authorities could post planning notices.

By June/July that figure increased to 59% of planning authorities.

Many participants questioned the value of site notices and whether alternative more cost-effective methods could be utilised instead.


Neighbour Notifications

At the start of the lockdown almost a fifth of local authorities weren’t posting neighbour notifications. As the lockdown progressed this proportion had decreased.

Almost all the authorities who attended the workshops had resumed posting neighbour notifications, many using workarounds such as those below.

  • four planning authorities were using print and post solutions, two of which stated there were cost savings as a result.
  • other authorities were periodically visiting offices to print, stamp and post neighbour notifications
  • a number were printing, stamping and posting neighbour notifications from home.
  • one authority stated that they are using a central print unit rather than by planning processing staff.

Site visits and building inspections

At the start of lockdown almost a third of planning authorities weren’t conducting physical site visits. Instead many were using technology to conduct virtual site visits and building inspections:

  • 46% were using online mapping tools like 'Streetview'
  • 25% used submitted videos and photos
  • 23% used site history
  • 5% used video conferencing tools like 'Zoom'.

Almost all planning authorities who attended the workshops have now resumed visits/inspections in some capacity. Many are beginning to make use of new digital tools in place of, or accompanying, physical visits/inspections.

What we're doing with the findings

Findings from the workshop are being used in two different ways. 

First, to help us plan short-term improvements to the current eDevelopment service based on what will provide the greatest benefit to authorities. The findings are also allowing us to build on our existing user research, validating our previous findings and highlighting where previously identified issues and opportunities have grown or decreased in relevance.

Second, to inform the roadmap and priorities for the wider programme of digital transformation which will launch in 2021, with the intention of using these findings to help create a more resilient planning system.

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Last Updated: 07 Jun 2023