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The On-Line Planning System

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Background The end of 2010
January 2011 February 2011
March 2011 April 2011
May 2011 June 2011
July 2011 August 2011
September 2011 October 2011
November 2011 December 2011
January 2012 February 2012
March and April 2012 May 2012
June 2012 July 2012
August 2012 September 2012
October 2012 November 2012
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August 2013 September 2013
October 2013 Nov/Dec 2013
January 2014 February 2014
March 2014 May 2014
June 2014 July 2014
August 2014 July 2015
September 2015 October 2015
March 2016 May 2016
August 2016 October 2016
July 2017  


Before the autumn of 2010, the public could visit Planning Reception to view planning application documents, or view them on-line through a system known as IDOX.  This arrangement had some problems because occasionally a case officer would borrow a planning file and the public had to wait while it was retrieved, but on the whole, the paper files were more up-to-date than the on-line ones because insufficient resources were available to scan documents, and so the task of updating the on-line records was often in arrears.

Preliminary announcements were made regarding the transfer of the planning function and staff from Trimbridge House to Lewis House, which included the news that there would no longer be a Planning Reception.  As a result of this, at the 7th July 2010 Development Control Meeting the Bath Preservation Trust asked the question that many wanted answered, of whether the rumour of the loss of Planning Reception was true.  The Committee Chairman responded saying "We shall ensure there is a proper reception" and we reported that verbatim on this website immediately after that meeting.

Yet when the draft Minutes were published, that statement did not appear.  Item 17 said that "The Chairman stated that Members would make their best endeavours that a public consultation area be provided".  No doubt there were some at the meeting who wished that is what the Chairman had said, but in fact the DCC Chairman was briefer and more positive, saying "We shall ensure there is a proper reception." (NB.  We noted down the words spoken exactly, and still have our notes).  The Chairman did not attempt to correct this error in the Minutes when the "true record" motion was put to the vote, even though we had pointed out the error on hits website as soon as the draft minutes were available.  The Minutes of the 7th July 2010 meeting were accepted by the Committee as a true record.  They are not a true record, so every member of the Committee (except those who did not attend the 7th July 2010 meeting) were somewhat economical with the truth when they voted for the "true record" motion.

Subsequently, the council unilaterally declared that from 13 September 2010 all access to planning documentation would be via the on-line services and printed copies would no longer be available for public inspection.  For those without a home computer, some terminals and staff to assist in their use would be available in the Guildhall.  The handicap of trying to appreciate a metre-wide drawing on a screen that can only display a ninth of the drawing at full scale has never been resolved;  nor has a method been provided for comparing two drawings side by side.

We think that this unilateral decision is of dubious legality.  The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 made it obligatory for Local Planning Authorities to prepare a Statement of Community Involvement, and after screening for necessary changes by the Planning Inspectorate, such a statement was formally adopted as B&NES policy.  In the Preface, above the signature of Cllr Gerrish, we read: This document sets new standards for Bath & North East Somerset Council - we now have an obligation to meet these.  So when, further down the document it says (in paragraph 4.16)  Planning applications are available to view on the Councilís website 2-3 days after validation.  Hard copies can be viewed on request from the Planning reception  this is part of that obligation.  The public has an expectation that there will be a Planning Reception where hard copies can be viewed "on request" which means that such documents must be readily available for all to see.  (Well done to the DCC Chairman, who on 7th July 2010 attempted to honour that obligation).  An attempt has been made to remove this obligation be suggesting that it is a minor amendment, but as we show below, for the people affected it is by no stretch of the imagination something that can honestly be called minor.  So to introduce that change the Statement of Community Involvement should be achieved by preparing a new draft for public consultation, with any public comments on it submitted to the Planning Inspectorate along with the draft for a ruling on whether it is reasonable.  In the (probably unlikely) event that is is considered reasonable, then the revision needs to be formally adopted by the council.  None of that has happened.  Why not, given that the Statement of Community Involvement publicly stated that its adopted standards are obligatory?  How long have the arbitrary decisions of council officers been allowed to undermine the decisions of the full council, made in conformance with extant legislation?

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Diary of Events:  Quarter 4 of 2010

Watchdog monitored the services provided to see how effective they were.

On the positive side, the previous time delay between submitting a planning application and the availability of the documents on-line has improved and on the whole the public has the opportunity to study them in time to comment, but some of the supporting documentation never appears.  In particular, when the DCC delegates to officers to permit subject to the agreement of a satisfactory S106 agreement, in many recent cases that agreement never appears when the permission is granted though in the past such documents routinely appeared.  The agreement for the Western Riverside went on-line promptly in December, but the equivalent documents for the flats in Piccadilly Place, the car showrooms at Windsor Bridge and the flats at the former Rockery Tea Gardens (there may be others, we haven't attempted to prepare an exhaustive list) are months overdue.

On the negative side, there have been a number of usability problems.  The loudest complaints we received were about the size of documents.  In the first few days, some documents were scanned at such a poor resolution that text on the page was totally illegible.  Then the opposite problem arose, with documents scanned at such high resolutions that they became too large to download.  Examples abound of 30 Megabyte files and 50 Megabyte files, and there are even examples of 100 Megabyte files.  Not all areas are served by broadband and where rural districts are limited to dial-up connections they have to sit and wait for nearly three hours for a 50 Megabyte file.  Even worse, until it actually arrives, they have no means of knowing how big the file is or how long they would have to wait.  Some dial-up agreements limit the continuous connection time to 2 hours, so the desired file could never be retrieved.  The worst example so far is the application for the Sainsburys extension, where to download all the files through a dial-up link would take a minimum of 41 hours.  Even those who have broadband may have to watch for file sizes, because supply agreements may involve "reasonable use" clauses so that downloading excessive amounts either brings additional charges or a freeze on use for the remainder of a preset period of time.  Mobile broadband normally charges by volume and at typical rates collecting all the Sainsburys documents would cost around £5 by that method.  When lodging a planning application the council's advice on submitting planning documents electronically restricts any document to 10 Megabytes, so anything bigger than this must be a conscious decision by a council employee.  Whether huge file sizes arise from carelessness, ignorance, or inability or even an unwillingness to deal  a problem that adversely affects the public's ability to view and comment on planning applications is unclear.   What is clear though is that it is unacceptable.

The performance of the on-line system has been unsatisfactory.  At the end of our two-month monitoring period we reported:

Although we received no reports of the on-line services failing over the Christmas and New Year break, once the demands on the system increased when staff returned to work and the public once again took an interest in planning matters, the problems reared their heads again.  On the next Friday morning (7th January) it once again proved to be impossible to access planning documents, though full services were restored later in the day.  Similarly, for the whole of the following Sunday afternoon, all attempts at viewing associated documents were met with a request for a Username and Password rather than the screen showing the list of documents that should have appeared.

After eight weeks of monitoring, we have come to the conclusion that the change of policy to have planning applications only available on-line, is not fit for purpose as currently implemented.  In particular, too many decisions are being made when relevant documents have not been on-line long enough for the public to read and comment on them:  in one instance (10/04470/LBA) we were informed of an additional document the day before the decision was made, and the information in that document would have changed our objection to a support comment so the Delegated Report misrepresented our final position.  Such selective availability of information could perhaps lead to allegations of maladministration.  We will continue to monitor the service, and demand significant improvements as a matter of urgency.

Yet worse was to come.

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Diary of Events:  January 2011

When writing this section we attempted to get an image of the appropriate section of the council screen to illustrate the change. Instead, we got the following response:

Server Error in '/PublicAccess' Application.

Runtime Error

Description:  An application error occurred on the server.

Any use of the Application Search or Property Search facilities produced the same error for an entire weekend.

During the week beginning 17th January 2011, alongside the electronic button that allowed comments to be submitted appeared a choice of two options: "I am a local resident", and "I live outside the area". The local resident is the default unless the other is chosen

The terms "local" and "the area" are open to interpretation.  For a planning application in (say) Snow Hill, is Larkhall considered local; is Bath considered local or is anywhere in the B&NES area considered local?  Conversely, if you live just over the border in Wiltshire are you allowed to call yourself local to a development just yards away but over the border in B&NES?

Choosing the "local" option leads to an address selection screen covering all of B&NES, but of course it would, because the same system would apply to (say) Keynsham and Chew Valley applications, and therefore there are still no clues about where "local" ends and "outside" begins.  Choosing the "outside" option leads straight to the comment screen that existed before.

Watchdog uses a Post Office Box address so that receiving mail does not rely on somebody being at home in any particular domestic address.  But PO Boxes have no defined street, so if we consider ourselves local to a planning application site, we cannot say so using an address list.   There is not a "No fixed Abode" address that we can use.

Various Watchdog members tested their own addresses and found that for a given address, a number of identities are offered.  But on Friday (21 Jan), the day we investigated, any choice of name gave a "System Error" response and then returned to the address selection screen, creating an indefinite loop of unsuccessful attempts.

The next test was to select an address at random, and this gave a list of names of people who presumably lived there.

This gives two major concerns:
•  When completing the Electoral Registration forms, residents have a legal right to opt for their name and address to be concealed from the publicly available list.  So when that concealed information is readily given to any casual observer through the planning website, the legality of displaying that information is suspect.  There is a significant difference in accessibility between examining a planning application and reading the name. of the person commenting along with their address, and the ability to look up any address to establish  associated names.  The Data Protection Act requires that the holder of personal data must declare what they intend to use the information for, and not use it for other purposes, and we doubt that this use has been properly authorised. Other legislation might have been breached too.  The Human Rights Act 1998 reinforces the Data Protection Act, and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides a right to respect for one's "private and family life, his home and his correspondence".  Furthermore it states There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society ...  and B&NES, as a public authority,  cannot claim that this change to the planning system is necessary when it worked perfectly satisfactorily beforehand.
•  Public comments on planning applications usually have a name and address, and although the system would not prevent a false name and address being used, spot checks could detect whether the name used is compatible with the address quoted, thus limiting anybody wishing to supply false information to those the person commenting knows are correct.  This new system with a list of names being offered for any given address allows comments to be made on behalf of anybody, whether known or unknown to the person commenting, and these fakes would be virtually undetectable.  Anybody could sit at one of the public terminals in the Guildhall (and thus be untraceable through internet addressing) and enter several hundred letters of support or objection, all from real people who would never know they had been impersonated until the decision notice dropped through their letter box.

By Saturday (22 Jan), our tests could not continue because nothing worked, see the box above.  The Data Protection Registrar has the authority to order any unlawful computer system to be shut down, and we wonder if that is what happened.

One thing that should not be overlooked is that IDOX is a bought-in system, so the council (which means Council Tax payers) will have paid for this update to become an unacceptable system.  At the very least, whoever authorised this waste of money should apologise for it.  Also the comments system should revert to its original form.

What happens now?

That very much depends on whether on-line comment facilities are restored in their original format, which up until the recent change were acceptable.

If the new arrangement continues to be used, we suggest that everybody looks up their own address, and anybody who is unhappy about any or all of the names displayed should write to the Planning Development Manager asking for the disliked details to be removed from the system.  If your request is refused, you should ask the Data Protection Registrar to pursue it on your behalf.

At the same time, we recommend that all comments should be either submitted as correspondence or else through the "outside the area" screen, because these methods are difficult to use for anybody intent on fraudulent input, and case officers should recognise that and give due consideration to your comments.  As the area which you are outside is not defined, you can imagine it as small as is necessary in order to place yourself outside it, if you need to justify your choice.

Anybody who subsequently receives a Decision Notice letter for a planning application that they didn't comment on should refer it to the council's Monitoring Officer for investigation.

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Diary of Events:  February 2011

We were informed by Planning Services on Friday 4 February that the "Submit Comments" changes that have caused so much concern among our members about the amount of personal information made publicly available, and have caused so many difficulties in availability and usage, have now been removed.

This followed a series of tests which were run on Thursday to prove that the repaired system has worked.  During those tests the public were unable to use the system.

We recognise that Thursday's downtime, despite the inconvenience, was in a good cause, and we are grateful that Planning Services took the public's concerns seriously and did something about them promptly.  The on-line system appears to have worked satisfactorily since then:  we received no further reports of faults in the week that followed.

Less able to be forgiven was the extended outage a week later.  From Sunday 13th February until lunchtime Tuesday 15th there was no usable service.

The following week we had reports of service unavailability on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (23rd to 25th).  In the gaps in between, we noticed that the e-mail confirmation of comments submitted electronically omits information that was previously provided; specifically whether the submission was an objection a support comment or a general comment despite the tick boxes still being on the submission form. The only obvious reason we can see for this omission is to remove the ability to prove what was submitted when complaining that comments have been wrongly labelled when put on-line.  We have previously said that the on-line facilities are not fit for purpose.  The experience of 2011 so far is that first of all the reliability, and then the usability got even worse!

We had no reports of planning system service problems after 25th February, but a number of administrative errors have been brought to our attention.  There are examples of Delegated Reports saying that there have been no public comments on particular applications when the on-line system prior to the Decision Notice being filed showed that there had been comments.  There are examples of public comments filed as Application Forms and we wonder if the Case Officer has recognised them as comments.  There have been examples where documents filed as Delegated Reports, when opened proving to be duplicates of the associated Decision Notice.

The latter one is just a filing error, easily corrected, we imagine.  But the former two are worrying.  Is the system as delivered to the Case Officer's desk so bad that despite the public making comments they are not available to the Case Officer and thus cannot be taken into account;  or is the pressure to meet targets so great that case officers are drafting their reports before the time for public comments expires?  Both are unacceptable.

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Diary of Events:  March 2011

On Sunday morning (13 March) the Application Search facility was unavailable, though it was working again in the afternoon.

Prior to that Sunday we noticed that some of the missing Delegated Reports have now been put on-line;  the wrong description of documents continues to take place sporadically, and we have found a few more examples where the case officer has stated in their Delegated Report that there were no public comments when we know that there were some.

A week later, we noticed that the incidences of erroneous descriptions on planning files continues.  The Bath Preservation Trust must be feeling particularly hard done by:  we found an objection of theirs filed as a support comment on one application and labelled as a comment by the Environment Agency on another.  If whoever puts these files on the on-line system can't do so more reliably, then somebody else should be checking their work.  Leaving it for the public to find the errors just isn't good enough.

We had reports of planning system service problems on Tuesday 22nd March, and when we next checked on Wednesday 23rd, it was still not working.  That is another two days when the availability of paper files would have allowed research on planning applications to be carried out.  The fragile on-line service, when provided as the sole means of examining planning applications, has proved to be not fit for purpose yet again.

To finish off the month of March with a whimper, we were notified that on 31st March the planning website was again not working.

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Diary of Events:  April 2011

April started the way March ended:  the planning website was again not working on Thursday 7th April, and even when the application search facilities came back into use later in the evening, there was still no access to the individual documents.  We have also received a series of complaints of very slow response times most evenings after 6pm during the first week of April.

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Diary of Events:  May 2011

May has been relatively trouble free.  A short spell of slow responses was reported during the evening of 18th May.  An evening described as giving the documents eventually, but after such a long delay that the system was almost unusable on 20th May.  No complete failures were reported.

A delay in getting documents on-line is becoming prevalent, particularly for revised drawings.  One applicant contacted us and invited us to meet him to give our opinion on some revised drawings which he had submitted to the council three weeks before and had not yet appeared on-line.  They appeared on the planning website a few days later, so he had suffered nearly a month's delay.

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Diary of Events:  June 2011

After a spell of relatively reliable service in May, perhaps as a result of lower usage over all the bank holidays, June started with another total failure.

It was first reported during the afternoon of Friday 3rd when access was erratic and considerable patience was needed to get the occasional access to documents, gradually getting worse until Friday evening when gaining sight of planning documents was almost as rare as winning the lottery.  Between Saturday morning and late Sunday afternoon, nothing could be accessed, not even the application summaries (and for some of that time the entire council website was unavailable).  There was a very slight improvement Sunday evening, when the Application Search facility occasionally worked, but no access to planning documents was possible on the rare occasions when the summary could be viewed.  The Application Search facility worked a little more often on Monday morning (6 June), but still with no access to planning documents.  It was impossible to lodge comments on any planning applications from the Friday afternoon to the Monday evening.  Normal service seemed to be resumed Monday evening.

The facility to lodge application comments was again not working during the evening of Wednesday 15th June.

The system has demonstrated once again the need for out-of-hours support staff to fix it whenever it goes wrong.  Given that without the ability to examine printed plans, many people study them on-line at evenings and weekends, there is a definite need for reliability at those times.

We received a report of problems with the on-line planning system during the morning of Wednesday 22nd June.  Initially there was no access to planning applications at all, and then later the summaries became available but the associated documents could not be retrieved.  The problem was fixed later the same day.

June ended the way it started, with service problems.  On Thursday 30th June there was access to the application summary but all attempts to view individual documents resulted in an error message.  By the evening, the error had become intermittent, with only some attempts to view documents failing.  It was then that another problem was seen, in that some documents retrieved did not contain the contents described.  On one application reported to us, three different document descriptions revealed the same drawing.

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Diary of Events:  July 2011

Like June, July started, with service problems.  On Sunday 3rd July there was no access to the application files.

At around 4pm on Saturday16th July the planning website stopped working, and usage was only restored mid afternoon on Sunday 17th July.  To make matters worse, the entire council website (not just the planning facility) stopped working late on the Saturday and was not restored until around 1pm Sunday afternoon.

A further failure was reported on the evening of Wednesday 20th July.

We have noticed a worrying increase in the number of Decisions recorded without an Officer's Report, and in one case an Appeal Decision is present without any of the preceding appeal documents being on-line.  If the on-line system is all that the public can refer to, it must be updated promptly and it must be a complete record.

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Diary of Events:  August 2011

We are discovering that the incidence of delays in getting documents on line now includes documents that are essential for a proper public consultation.

We support the concept of case officers negotiating with applicants to get amendments to applications that are not acceptable as presented but could be made so.  In terms of effort, it must be beneficial to all concerned to avoid having to deal with a complete new resubmission.  However, the council's Code of Conduct requires amendments to be available for public scrutiny for 14 days before determination, and it is simply not acceptable to have decision notices issued that refer to drawings that have not been placed on-line before the decision date.  The public comments on the revised drawings might have affected the decision;  as a minimum the opportunity to do so must be provided.
New rules are required, that dates are based on when documents are visible to the public, not on when they are received.

If B&NES is to continue with its policy of planning application documents only being made available electronically, then it is against the dates of that availability that the ability of the council to meet Government guidelines on public consultation should be measured.

The on-line services between 15th August and 22nd August were almost non-existent (we described them at the time as being dreadful, disastrous, awful, dire, dismal, and calamitous, in that order).

The first report of problems was Monday 15th during the late evening, when the service was seen to run slower and slower until it failed and attempts to use it received an apology message instead of the expected reply screen.  Half an hour later we discovered that if the full address of a document was known, it could be retrieved, but of course nobody normally knows the full address of a document without accessing it through the (now unusable) application display facility;  a browser's history can only identify what has already been looked at.

By mid-morning on Tuesday the situation had been reversed.  It was then possible to use the Application Search facility to find an application, but it was not possible to view the list of associated documents.  Nor was it possible to read a document by entering the full address.  That situation continued all through Tuesday and into Wednesday morning.

Eventually, from Wednesday lunchtime, it was possible to use the system fairly normally, though as the day progressed the response times got slow, probably when people discovered it was working and tried to catch up,  Some time during Thursday (we were not given a time) the situation reverted to the position on Tuesday afternoon:  it was possible to use the Application Search facility to find an application, but it was not possible to view the list of associated documents.  That remained the position all through Friday and the weekend, and into the morning of Monday 22nd.  With the exception of a few hours, there had been no access to planning facilities for a week.

In view of the lack of service, we recommended that there should be a moratorium on determining planning applications until after the on-line services have been restored and fully operational for a week, to give those who might want to examine planning applications and make comments the opportunity to do so and have their views taken into account in the decision making process.  That suggestion was ignored.

As a footnote, the main council website, which was operational until Saturday afternoon, did not work when we tried to access it Sunday afternoon, the 21st.  Attempted accesses simply timed out.  That problem was fixed by the Monday morning.

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Diary of Events:  September 2011

There were two problems with the on-line services reported to us during the week in which August gave way to September.  On the Tuesday evening (30 August) attempts to use the service gave an apology message at first, and then no response at all when tested again later.  The service was restored after a few hours.  On the Friday evening (2 September) the response was painfully slow when accessing planning documents, but it didn't stop completely.

For the remainder of the month there were only occasional problems.  On Wednesday 14th September the on-line facilities were reported not working in the evening.  On Thursday 15th the Property Search facility did not work in the evening.  On Monday 19th September the response times were painfully slow, with pages often timing out before anything was displayed, requiring re-tries.

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Diary of Events:  October 2011

After a quiet start to the month, we suddenly received reports from members that the council's on-line system looked different, and complaints that some of the links on this website did not work.

When we investigated we discovered that the council's system had been changed. On the council website was the announcement
** Public Access has been replaced with a similar facility for viewing planning applications online. The new system has been designed to replicate most of the functionality that was available through the old system. These include application address searching, viewing planning application documentation and submitting comments online. In addition, you may want to replace any old shortcut links or web favourites you may have as the web address is different for this replacement facility. **

We tested our "old shortcut links" as suggested and stopped counting when we reached 200 that needed changing.  Then came the task of working out what to change them to.

We investigated the new system.  There are a couple of nice additions, but some significant drawbacks:
•  We liked the easy access to the previous planning applications for a property under the "Property History" tab which saves the search through the Property Details facility required under the old system.
•  The little map that appears alongside the application summary, if it works, is a nice touch.
•  The single enquiry box that functions when the Return key is used is an improvement over the previous system where using the return key annoyingly defaulted to a calendar look-up.

But oh dear! Where to start with the new problems:
•  Displaying the little map is erratic with the outcome depending on which browser is used and how it is set up.  Internet Explorer, the most widely used browser displays the map correctly unless it has been changed from the default settings to improve security when the positioning of the map can go awry.  An older version set for low risk browsing shows only part of the map with the remainder disappearing off the bottom of the screen.  Firefox is the second most popular browser, and Version 3 displays the map but Version 2 leaves the map area out completely.  Different results from different browsers usually indicates coding errors so we passed the coding of one page through a World Wide Web Consortium validation service for a report on the coding and received a validation report identifying 21 errors where the coding is invalid, and 5 warnings of bad coding practice.
•  The old system allowed comments to be submitted on-line until a decision was placed on file, when the "Submit Comments" option disappeared;  the new system removes the equivalent "Comments are invited" option when the "Expiry Date for consultation" is passed, replacing it with "Comments are no longer invited for this application".  Note the word "invited".  Until now, there has always been the ability to comment until a decision is made;  indeed we had previously been assured that late comments made on applications to be decided by the DCC would be taken into account in the officer's brief to the Committee.  So to meet this obligation, although the new system might not "invite" comments it ought to still be possible to submit them.  Our technicians have analysed the coding and it is possible to submit comments after the invitation is no longer made, but there are snags, more of which later.

To get an idea of the size of 2000 characters, the amount of text from the word "Displaying" in the first bullet point to the word "e-mail" in the third bullet point is 2014 characters.

•  The old system allowed comments to be up to 6000 characters.  The new one sets a much lower limit of 2000 characters.  A quick review of Watchdog comments showed that a small proportion were over 6000 characters and we had submitted them by e-mail.  The majority were less than 6000 characters but were rather more than 2000 characters, so for our purposes the new on-line system of submitting comments is going to be virtually useless.  We wonder whether the staff effort of handling all the submissions that will not fit into 2000 characters has been taken into account when the decision was taken to change the system?  The old system had reliability problems, but at least when it was working it could handle the majority of comments submitted.
•  The old system provided a confirmation page showing the text accepted, which could be readily used to create our website files of comments submitted.  Having to work from the confirmation e-mail (assuming that there is still a confirmation e-mail - we haven't tested that yet!) by removing all the e-mail formatting is extra work for us that was not previously necessary.  Incidentally, there is a grammatical error in the confirmation message from the new system: "you're comment has been recorded" should be "your comment has been recorded", yet another indication of a lack of quality assurance of the product.
•  Because of the inclusion of the map, the amount of data transmitted is far greater than when using the old system.  We know some of our members still use dial-up and some have usage caps, and both these groups will be hampered in the number of applications they can look at in future.  Others will find the intermediate screen between entering the application number and getting to the detailed screen a tedious addition.

The council website says that comments on applications can be submitted by post or on-line.  Given the system as delivered permits only short comments for a relatively short time, these limitations will either deter people from commenting (which would be contrary to the Council's Code of Practice) or could flood the mail room with paper.

So we are offering two services.  The first is an e-mail address to save posting written comments.  Write your comments on your computer as though writing a letter, then attach the saved file to this e-mail address and send it.  (The e-mail address can be found in the Planning area of the council website, but this link will save you hunting for it).

The second is a bit more complicated.  We consider the quick links we provide to applications to be an important public service, so making them work again became a priority, even if we can't do anything about the 2000 character limitation.  We found that it was possible to get to the screen where you can submit comments, even though comments might not be "invited".  Unfortunately, unlike the previous system which blocked the comment facility once a decision had been made, the new system doesn't seem to be as clever.  We didn't try it (it would have been wrong to do so), but it looks as though having got to the Submit Comments screen, it would be possible to comment on an application that has already been decided.  We have therefore had to expand our comment submission links:  The "Make Comment" link is now preceded by one which takes you to the application details.  Use this one first and look for a "Decision" line.  If it is there, it shows that it is too late to comment and you must not use the "Make Comment" link.

The council's website states:  The new system has been designed to replicate most of the functionality that was available through the old system.  We are not convinced that it was designed to do that at all.  It bears all the hallmarks of an off-the-shelf product that is a rough approximation of the previous system, and nobody examined it closely enough to see whether it is actually suitable for what the public expect of it.  As an additional facility to the paper planning files it would have its uses, but B&NES has only provided on-line facilities and that places far higher demands on the on-line functionality.  To our technicians the new system doesn't look beyond repair, but whether anyone will spend the time and effort mending it only time will tell.  As a precaution, we have taken an archive back-up of our website pages that use the old system, just in case the decision is taken to revert to it.  Looking up 200+ planning applications in a hurry to obtain new link addresses is not something we want to do again!

To cap it all, during the Sunday afternoon, the 9th October, there was a spell when the council's normal website stopped working, and a spell when having used the new system to find planning applications, trying to look at the planning documents resulted in an "internal error".  So the new system didn't bring improved reliability either on that day.

We received reports of failures of the on-line system on Friday 21st October, when initially the application overview screen was available but the link to planning documents did not work, followed by a spell when nothing worked.  Having received the reports, we tested and discovered that some functions were blocked for a while by a request to enter a username and password (which of course we do not have).  By mid afternoon the problems seemed to have been cured.

The following week, on Friday 28th October, the same fault was seen again in the early evening.  It did not last so long though, and later that evening full service was restored.

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Some of our members who have a broadband contract limiting them to a ceiling figure for data downloads have been in touch to say the new system seems to be using a lot of their allowance.  So we measured the download traffic.  The sample applications we chose revealed a common traffic measurement.  Each summary screen (the one that contains a map) is a download of 1.65Mbytes.  To put that into perspective, anybody still using dial-up would wait for nearly 5 minutes to get the full page loaded.  Anybody on a 10Gbytes a month broadband contract would use 1% of their daily ration for every two application summaries examined (ie without looking at any of the documents).

The planning system map does show whether there are any other applications local to the one being examined, so we cannot dismiss it out of hand.  But there is clearly a disadvantage in having it displayed by default when the majority would not be interested in such information, particularly when every application document set always includes an OS Map document.  There would obviously be a user benefit from having the map as an optional feature available on request by clicking a link, and not something loaded by default  We hope the council takes note.

Diary of Events:  November 2011

November was only a few days old when the first problem was seen.  On Thursday 3rd November, in the early evening. the application search screen worked and gave the summary screen, but all attempts to access documents were blocked by a screen asking for username and password.  This situation persisted overnight and into the following morning.  It was not until early afternoon on Friday 4th that full service was restored.


Diary of Events:  December 2011

We received no further reports of failures during December, although we received some complaints that a few documents seemed to be missing from the most recent on-line additions.

Our own checks while doing the website update discovered that there was an apparent corruption in the database where a planning application for a particular address existed, but the address itself appeared to be unknown to the system.  Development Control reported that this particular application was still in validation and should not be available because of that, which may be true but does not explain why we were able to access the application in August but not in December.

We received some complaints that the system prevents comments sometimes when comments are still expected to be made.  The specific case in point is the application for Gammon Plant Hire site, where the DCC deferred a decision because new documents had been lodged and the public had not had the opportunity to comment on them, yet the planning system stated that comments are no longer invited.  We established that anybody who wanted to comment could do so by e-mail to Development Control, quoting the application number in the subject line, but that creates additional work for the person wishing to comment and the staff in Development Control.  It circumvents the problem rather than solving it.

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Diary of Events:  January 2012

On 29th January we received a report that when an application search by address was made, it gave a reply "A problem has ocurred in the repeater process, either obtaining data or replacing tags.  Please check Datashare configuration and template."  We had no idea what this means (and we note the wrong spelling of "occurred").  The cause was not immediately obvious either, because our own test search by address we made when we received the report produced the normal expected result.  We undertook further testing at intervals.

It was during this testing that we reproduced the error ourselves and were thus able to explain the cause.  If a search by address is made for a valid address, but one which has not had a planning application lodged against it, then the message reported is the message which is returned.  It is reasonable for a system to report that an address has no associated planning applications in plain English;  it is not acceptable to respond in meaningless (and incorrectly spelt) jargon.

Furthermore, we said when the new system came in that the search by address was nowhere near as useful as the old facility it replaced, which was able to report all the valid addresses in a given street, regardless of whether or not they had raised any planning applications.  Now we know that the new system cannot be used just to establish whether an address is genuine, a useful facility under the previous system, and that the address search in the new system is also flawed.

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Diary of Events:  February 2012

We received a report of a problem with the planning system on Tuesday 7th February.  During the morning it was noticed that although the application search facility was working normally and the summary information was displayed, all attempts to view the associated documents resulted in a screen asking for a username and password, which of course no member of the public has (or normally needs).  The fault had been rectified by early afternoon.

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Diary of Events:  March and April 2012

We received no reports of complete failures during March, only a few reports of particularly slow running which nevertheless eventually gave access to the desired files.

We reported a couple of instances where comments we know had been submitted were not visible.  We were informed that the wrong status had been set, which resulted in them being hidden from public view, though they would have been visible to B&NES staff, and that error was corrected.

For a short period on Sunday evening 1st April response times got so long that application searches timed out.  That problem soon cleared.

On Saturday 14th April, service was erratic from mid-morning and by early afternoon it had failed completely.  Not only was the planning system reporting an "Internal Server Error" at every attempt to examine planning documents, but the whole of the council website was replying "Error - Page unavailable" when attempts were made to look things up that were not planning applications.  This fault persisted until the evening.

We were given prior warning that on Sunday 29 April, maintenance of the planning system would be taking place and there might be difficulties in accessing planning documents during the maintenance period.  We appreciated this advice and completed the majority of our reading before the Sunday.  That said, apart from an occasional delayed response, we were not unduly hampered by the maintenance.

One thing we did discover was nothing to do with maintenance but seems to be a fault in the system.  We found a planning application 12/01457/CLPU, and the on-line system says "Comments are not invited for this type of application".  Yet the list of types where comments are not allowed that appears on the council website states "You cannot comment on a Discharge of Condition request or Non-Material Amendment (reference numbers ending COND and NMA)" and we note that the list does not include CLEU.  Yet again the facilities operated by the council have restrictions that are not supposed to exist.  First we found the inability to comment on revised drawings, and now a complete block on something that is not supposed to be blocked.

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Diary of Events:  May 2012

During the evening of Friday 4th May, there was a spell when it was impossible to read individual planning documents, although the summaries were displayed on-screen as usual.  This problem cleared itself later.  However it reappeared on Sunday 6th May, and then it persisted for much longer.
We also noted an oddity, in that one of the applications before the DCC has its decision shown as CONSENT on the application summary screen - three days before the committee discussed it.

During the afternoon of Sunday 13th May, the system was completely dead for several hours.  All attempts to access anything failed, with an error message saying that the planning website had failed to respond and thus timed out.

During the evening of Thursday 17th May, the search facilities were working normally but every attempt to read individual documents failed with an error screen displayed.  Service was back to normal the following morning.

There was a short outage in the afternoon of 27th May.  For most of the day the system was working and then just after 16:15 it suddenly stopped working and all application searches timed out.  Five minutes later service was restored, so this was just a short glitch.

The month of May ended with a problem.  From the early evening of 31st May the application descriptions were displayed on-screen as usual but the link from that screen to the documents produced a "time-out" error so it was impossible to read individual planning documents.  Our website links to the list of planning documents also faced the same time-out problem.  The problem persisted for the rest of the day.

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Diary of Events:  June 2012

June started well with no reports of problems with the planning system during the first half of the month.

For three consecutive days (19th, 20th and 21st June) there were spells when the planning website was unusable, when all attempts to access it timed out.

A similar (though slightly different) fault was seen during the afternoon of Friday 29th June when for a short spell, attempts to view application summaries resulted in a long delay followed by a "Server Error" response.

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Diary of Events:  July 2012

There were no reports of service problems in July.  However there were two incidents of applications being put on-line with documents containing drawings in an unexpected and inconvenient format, unreadable by some.

The first noticed and reported on 16th July had three documents wrong, and they were quickly corrected.  The second reported on 27th July had 52 erroneous documents and they had still not been corrected when July ended.

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Diary of Events:  August 2012

There were no reports of service problems in the first week of August, but the formatting problem reported in July remained unresolved.  By 21 August the software supplier had confirmed it was a bug, but a resolution was still being investigated.

From about 8pm in the evening of Wednesday 22 August until about 9am the following morning, all attempts to view planning documents failed with an "Internal Error" message.  In the evening of Thursday 23rd August there was again no access to planning documents until the following morning, but this time the problem was a screen asking for a username and password (which the public do not have) preventing access to documents.

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Diary of Events:  September 2012

September brought a new look to the council website.  Watchdog was only concerned with the changes to the planning pages, which retained the same functionality but we were not impressed with the appearance.  We said:  "there have been complaints that the latest addition, of the alphabet pad, to the Application Summary screen makes the screen very cluttered.  It might confuse the occasional user, because Council Connect, who have their advertisement beneath it, do not deal with planning.  They are likely to start getting planning enquiries though, because their contact details have been added to the planning screens.  Our message to whoever thought that these additions would be beneficial is that they aren't!  The sooner they are removed the better."

Our criticism was mild compared to the views of the wider public as reported in the Chronicle.  The council's explanation of what the change was is poorly explained, so we will try to give a non-technical explanation.

The council's website was originally bought in.  It was something developed elsewhere for council websites and the council paid a recurring licence fee to use it.  The new product "Drupal" is described as a Content Management System, effectively an automated electronic information store, which can be used by anybody, not just councils.  Over three quarters of a million companies and organisations worldwide use it for a whole range of things including Twitter, press organisations, shops and the websites of most of the UK Government Departments. And it is free for anybody to use if they download it to their own computer, though there are companies who rent out computer capacity to run it on and will download it for you.  The use by the council spokesman of the word "platform" hints at the second approach, but we cannot be sure.  Nobody has to pay a licence to use it.  That benefit is behind the council's savings.

Because it is a content management system, the council has to feed into it the content that it wants to make available and Drupal finds somewhere to put it, knows where it is, and retrieves it when someone asks for it.  What it looks like on the screen when it is retrieved is the council's choice, and the council has chosen to have it presented on a cluttered and rather unpopular screen format.  So it is not the fault of Drupal, which simply does what it is told, it is the fault of the council who told Drupal what to do.  The excuse that it is worth it to save money won't wash.  The money would still be saved if the screens were changed to something the public would be happier with.

Out of curiosity, we put one of the new style screen pages through a validation package, which reported 25 coding errors and 3 warnings of bad practice.  If the £94,000 the council spent included the screen display coding, they should ask for some of their money back.  And while the coding is being corrected, it would be an ideal time to improve the screen presentation.

The other worrying thing in the council's statement "fewer web pages to make the site easier to search and navigate"  In other words, some things that you used to be able to find on the council's website won't be there any more.  We don't think that is acceptable.

Towards the end of September we had our attention drawn to the problems experienced by users of older computers, and we set up our own test.  There are no indications that the irritating additional clutter on the Application Summary screens is to be removed  and it does have an impact on the older 4:3 ratio display screens.  This is our conclusion:

Not everybody has a widescreen computer display, and those who don't are suffering a very cramped presentation.  Indeed, anybody without a widescreen display who uses Internet Explorer and also has a "Favourites" panel on the screen sees the alphabet panel push everything else below it, then the map pushes all the text below it, so that it is necessary to scroll down three screen depths to discover what the application is about.  Those who use Firefox find that it tries to adapt the display to fit the screen, so that the 5 wide by 6 deep alphabet pad becomes 4 wide by 8 deep leaving room for the map but not the text alongside and moving the text to the bottom so that it is only necessary to scroll down two screen depths.  Both presentations are unpleasant to use.  Anybody with a really old computer and using the earliest version of Firefox finds that the text is underneath the map (which does not display correctly) and is totally unreadable.  Does nobody test changes before inflicting them on the public?

Testing is a fundamental requirement for any change to a computer system, and this oversight is unforgivable.  Every Watchdog website update is tested with a syntax validator and three browsers on two different operating systems, so we know it is not rocket science.

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Diary of Events:  October 2012

We were warned in September by the council's statement "fewer web pages to make the site easier to search and navigate" that information previously on-line might disappear.  In slow time we have been checking our links to council-held information, and whilst we have not yet discovered any document that we link to actually being missing, we have found some that have not only moved (leaving search engines pointing to an empty space) but have been renamed in both the on-screen references (when we finally found them) and the file name of the stored data, making our exercise very time-consuming.

We can't think of any particular benefit from changing file names, so we are left wondering if things are being deliberately hidden.  Just in case that is the case, we are not identifying the ones that have been moved, we are just amending our links to them so that they work once more.

On Sunday 14th October, from lunchtime, all attempts to view the summary of documents on any planning application resulted in a "Proxy Error" response.  The problem persisted for just over 24 hours before the facility limped back into life on the Monday afternoon, with an intermittent service at first, before it finally settled down and worked reliably again late afternoon.

At some time between Sunday 21st October and Sunday 28th October, without any warning, the way that planning applications are addressed on the council website had been changed.  Every single link on this website has had to be amended to reflect the new address structure.

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Diary of Events:  November 2012

We noticed on 4th November (though we don't know if the problem existed earlier than that) that the Property History button no longer gives the history.  For instance we chose a site where there is known to be a history of previous applications (the Herman Miller site) and clicking on the map shows that it has had 10 related applications, but only one is listed under the Property History button - and that is a bad link leading to a Page Not Found error!.  All the other addresses tested as a random selection of those with a history of past applications show the same problem.

On Friday evening, 16 November, there were periods when the search facility by application number gave the link to the chosen application, but clicking on that link gave an error message that a problem had occurred in the repeater process.   There were small windows of time where things seemed to work normally, but mostly the system was unusable.  By Saturday, the error still showed up but by then it was all the time, and there was a second problem in that some planning applications seemed to have disappeared from the system, even some that had been successfully viewed the day before.  Searching by address produced some, but not all of the applications known to exist.  Eventually, the Weekly List search facility stopped working too.  By then it was totally unfit for purpose.
By Sunday morning, 18 November, some of the facilities had returned.  The Weekly List ran, but the results presented were incomplete, so that some of the applications shown on Friday were no longer listed.  Most of the applications could be viewed, although on every single map presented there was just a diagonal line and the number "1" in the centre.  The ones that couldn't be viewed were those omitted from the Weekly List.  This problem remained for the whole of Sunday, and part of Monday.  The applications that couldn't be viewed were restored during Monday 19 November.  We were not told exactly when the problem with the map display was corrected, but it worked next time we looked on Monday evening.

However the same fault reappeared on the Tuesday 27 November evening and seemed to have been repaired by the next day.  Then on Wednesday 28th in the evening a different fault was seen, where the list of documents in an application could be displayed but all attempts to view the documents themselves resulted in a "Powered by IDOX" screen instead.  Again this appeared to be repaired by the next morning

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Diary of Events:  December 2012

There were more problems on 4 December when attempts to view some documents resulted in a "Powered by IDOX" screen instead of the drawings expected.  This appeared to be repaired by the next morning.  Later that evening the search facility failed, returning the error message "A problem has occurred in the repeater process, either obtaining data or replacing tags.  Please check Datashare configuration and template."  Although this problem was not seen during the daytime the following day, it reappeared during the evening of Wednesday 5th December.

The unreliability of the on-line system is becoming a real problem when there are cut-off dates for comments to planning applications to be adhered to.

There were problems accessing the lists of documents on Tuesday 18 December, when all attempts were met with a screen asking for a Username and Password.

There were no access problems during the last week of December, but we did have a complaint passed to us, that when new or revised drawings are submitted, the time-out for the on-line comments is often not reset to give the public their promised 14 days to comment on the revisions.

2012 Overview

The reports from 2012 show that there are recurring problems with the online system, currently making it too unreliable to be acceptable as the only access to planning documents. Here's hoping that 2013 brings some real effort to improve the system.

These priority items should improve reliability, usability and readability.

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Diary of Events:  January 2013

We received a couple of reports on Thursday 10 January 2013 of documents listed against planning applications not displaying when the link was clicked, but this issue corrected itself soon afterwards.  However the problem reappeared on other applications over the weekend.

We received numerous reports during the following week (ending 20 January 2013) of the same problem, of documents listed against planning applications not displaying when the link was clicked, but instead a "Powered by IDOX" screen appeared.  The problem seems to be transient in that a given document which failed to show for a while eventually displays correctly many hours later.

We reported the problem to the council department responsible, but by the time they checked the examples we provided those documents displayed correctly (and it was others that didn't) so they were unable to investigate the underlying cause.  Nevertheless, from the information provided by our members, this fault is a serious inconvenience, so we recommended that council staff do spot checks on recently added documents to find problem documents so that they have live examples to investigate.  The week after that we received no further complaints, so it looks as though the problem was rectified.

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Diary of Events:  February 2013

On Sunday 10th February 2013 planning summaries were available but all attempts to view the list of submitted documents for an application resulted in an "Internal Server Error" message.

This is in addition to the problem experienced on Saturday 9th February 2013 (continuing into Sunday) when the Council website was faulty, and no matter what route was taken through the various website links to try to find out what was on the agenda for the Development Control Committee the following Wednesday, they all resulted in a page that simply said in large letters:  Error - page unavailable.

The online planning system "Search" facility responded only with an unintelligible error message about "Datashare configuration" late on Saturday 23 February 2013, regardless of whether the search was for an application number or an address.  The fault had been cleared the following day.

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Diary of Events:  March 2013

Over the weekend of Saturday 2nd March 2013 and Sunday 3rd March 2013 it was noticed that the map which displays on the Application Summary screen was taking rather longer than normal to appear, though when it did show on screen it was a normal display.  This seemed to have been fixed by the time the working week started.

From Wednesday 6th March 2013 we received numerous reports that the page displaying the list of documents for a planning application was taking a very long time to show on screen.  In our own tests of a number of different applications chosen at random we noted that the previously normal 3-5 seconds for the list to appear was now taking a minimum of 20 seconds, and often even longer.  What was apparent was that the list always did appear eventually, so the service was dreadfully slow rather than completely broken.  We reported the problem as a fault on Friday morning, and by Friday evening normal service was restored.

On Thursday 14 March 2013 in the evening for a couple of hours, occasionally an attempt to view a document timed out before the document was displayed.  This problem went away later in the evening, and documents which previously failed were now able to be viewed.

On Friday 15 March 2013 a different problem was seen, when attempts to view some documents resulted in a "Server Error" response.  We reported the fault, and were informed that the problem showed when attempting to view particularly large documents and Software Support services would be looking into it.  Because the larger documents often include a Design and Access Statement or a Historical Survey, the fault makes proper evaluation of some applications very difficult.  At the same time we noticed an intermittent fault, when attempting to read some documents results in a "File does not begin %PDF" error message.  Attempting to read the same file a second time usually displays it OK.

These problems continued for another week, after which no new occurrences were reported.  However the files which gave a "Server Error" response on 15th March have not been repaired, and those files still exhibit the error behaviour.

On Friday 29 March 2013, we received a complaint that an upgrade to the system had changed the way that planning documents had been displayed, making them mostly unreadable by those with older equipment.  The "View Documents" feature which used to provide a list of documents for an application in its own window now produces that list on the main screen.  Selecting a document to view also displays it on the main screen instead of an entire clear screen as it used to be.  For those with a wide screen it is not a particular problem, but for those with the earlier narrow screens, the wasted space on the left of the screen occupied by index letters and, contact links, which we have been complaining about since the beginning of September 2012 makes the displayed document so cramped that it is often unreadable depending on the content of the document.  We hope that this amendment will be reversed.  It wasn't broken, and did not need fixing!

Also on On Friday 29 March 2013, we noticed that the problem with the Property History button which we first reported on 4th November 2012 and had persisted since then, had been fixed.

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Diary of Events:  April 2013

The problem we reported on 29 March had other ramifications which were brought to light on Friday 5 April 2013.  When documents are displayed in the main screen, some configurations of computer systems lost the ability to print or save the documents.  This made the change far more serious than just a cramped screen;  it becomes a usability problem.

Previously when a member of the public viewed a document, it opened in a fully functional version of the Acrobat Reader, so that the document could be viewed, but could also be printed (which was very useful for anybody with an A3 printer wanting to read a large scale document) or saved to a local file (allowing it to be viewed when no internet connection was available, or to be written to a a CD or a memory stick and copied to friends and neighbours to look at.  The display on the main screen still looks like an Acrobat presentation, but is now often without the Acrobat functionality.

We investigated the characteristics of as many of the various operating systems and browsers that we could gain access to:

Windows 98 - Those with the oldest machines using Windows 98 had the full Acrobat functionality using Internet Explorer 6; and if using Firefox 2 (the most recent version compatible with Windows 98) also had Acrobat functionality, though the map would not display in that version of Firefox.

Windows XP - Those using Windows XP with Internet Explorer 6 did not have Acrobat functionality, Internet Explorer 8 did, but Internet Explorer 9 did not;  nor when using the oldest Firefox (Version 3) nor using the more recent Version 12, but the update to Version 19 allowed the Acrobat controls again.

Windows Vista - Those using Vista with Firefox (believed to be Version 12 but that was not confirmed) did not have Acrobat functionality, but Vista with Internet Explorer 9 did.

Windows 7 - Those using Windows 7 and Internet Explorer 9 did not display the document at all, whilst Internet Explorer 10 displayed it without the Acrobat controls.  Of the users of Windows 7 using Palemoon as a browser, Version 15 also lacked the Acrobat controls, as did the very latest Version 19, but the intermediate Version 18 did display them.

Others - We could not find a member using Windows 8 so we cannot comment on its characteristics.  Nor can we comment on those systems using Linux or on Apple Macintosh computers because none of our members reported using such systems.

The whole thing is an uncoordinated mess which should never have been inflicted on the public when the on-line system is the only means of accessing planning documents.  We request (and expect) that this amendment will be reversed.  It wasn't broken, and did not need fixing!  There is a lesson to be learned here:  that developers should always test new facilities on a whole variety of systems including obsolescent equipment.  Our straw poll shows that a significant proportion of the on-line population use configurations that have now been crippled by this ill-advised update.

On Sunday 21 April 2013 the Application Summary screen functioned normally but all attempts to view the list of planning documents on an application and the planning documents themselves received a "Proxy Error" response.  This problem was rectified the following day.

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Diary of Events:  May 2013

The problem from March continued into May, but other than that the beginning of May was uneventful.

Then on Wednesday 15th May 2013, in the evening, all attempts to view planning documents resulted in a "Proxy Error" response.  The planning summary screen displayed normally but the "Documents" link always resulted in the error screen.

On Thursday 16th May 2013, also in the evening, all attempts to view planning documents resulted in "an internal error has occurred" response.  Again the summary screen worked but not the "Documents" link.

On Sunday 19th May 2013, we received a communication from a member that the Acrobat problem they had suffered all through April had gone away.  We did our own testing and it looks as though the system had reverted to the style that was in use before the 29th March amendment.  We haven't checked all the variations we trialled in April, but we did establish that two of the combinations that had previously lacked the Acrobat controls now had them restored.  So unless members inform us otherwise, we believe that the problems have been rectified.

We then tested some of the files which had failed with a "Server Error" fault since 15 March and successfully opened on screen and also downloaded to disc some of the files which had previously always failed.  This problem is also now considered to have been rectified.

On Thursday 23rd May 2013, early in the evening, all attempts to view planning documents failed.  The problem had been rectified by later that evening.

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Diary of Events:  June 2013

We noted that the main B&NES Council Website was unavailable on Sunday 9th June, but the planning system was working normally provided those looking at planning knew how to address it directly rather than reach it through the council website homepage.

From early in June we received complaints of planning documents that seemed to be of excessive size, especially Application Forms, though other documents and drawings were also reported.  This is particularly troublesome to those on dial-up and those whose broadband has a usage cap.

Because that part of the council website covering most areas of council business provided an "Error - page unavailable" response during Saturday 29 June and Sunday 30 June 2013, we were unable to establish which planning applications were before the DCC on 3 July, which we would normally show on this website.


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Diary of Events:  July 2013

After we listed it as a new application on 23 June 2013 we received some requests for help with the Sainsbury's application because of the sheer size of the application.  We examined the problem, and discovered that there were some 160 documents ranging in size from a tiny 2-page document downloaded almost instantly to a huge 260+ page document of nearly 90 megabytes.  In total it came to around 500 megabytes.

To put that into perspective, for those few members still using dial-up, 500 megabytes represents 25 hours of downloads.  For those in rural areas with slow broadband speeds, it is at least 50 minutes of downloads on a good day.  For those with faster broadbands but with a usage cap, it represents up to a quarter of their monthly data allowance.  Furthermore, there were 36 documents all identically labelled "Environmental Statement" but covering a range of environmental subjects, with no way of knowing what the subject matter is (or indeed how big the download is) without actually retrieving it.  So how can anybody pick and choose which documents they are specifically interested in, and identify which ones are too big to be a practical download?  The answer is that they can't.

We think that for large applications like this (and no doubt for future large ones as might be expected for the Western Riverside) the list of documents should include a better description of the documents so that it is possible to focus on areas of particular interest;  and include as a matter of course a marker to warn of large files (say over 6Mb) and very large files (over 20Mb).  Consideration should also be given to offering a service in the One Stop Shop where visitors arriving with a blank CD (so that there is no cost of materials for the council) can have planning applications written to it on request.  This would allow those with download limitations to have access to planning documentation that they would in the past have viewed as paper documents.

Whilst the planning website was operating normally, much of the remainder of the council website was inaccessible over the weekend of 27-28 July 2013, preventing background information from being referred to.


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Diary of Events:  August 2013

There were reports of difficulties accessing planning information during the evening of Friday 16th August 2013 with some attempts ending in failure and others described as "dreadfully slow".

Whilst we saw no complete failures to access during the following two days, the response times to deliver planning summary information to the PC screen were often frustratingly slow.  On the Saturday the text describing the application was often taking 30 seconds or more to appear with a worst case of over a minute, with another 30 seconds delay before the map appeared.  On the Sunday, the text was a bit quicker - more typically around 15 seconds, but then there was a wait of typically 45 seconds to a minute before the map displayed.  Having got the summary on-screen, the link to the documents themselves seem to have a normal response time, so no blame can be placed on broadband network speeds.

There had been no improvement by the following weekend.  Indeed on Saturday, 24 August2013, the delay was at times even slower than the previous weekend, and now it was affecting the display of the documents list and the retrieval of documents, which previously had been reasonably and reliably quick.  Now there were spells where it was frustratingly slow.  It was, if anything, even worse on the following day, Sunday, with some single page drawings taking a minute, and sometimes rather more, to retrieve.  In isolated cases the response was so slow that browsers timed them out.

By the following weekend, Saturday, 31 August 2013, the problem had improved, in that the text of the application summary now appeared after a perfectly acceptable pause.  However there then followed a delay of a constant 40 seconds for the map to complete its appearance, and this fixed delay hinted that somewhere in its processing the system is waiting for something and finally times out the wait.


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Diary of Events:  September 2013

The problems observed at the end of August persisted into the first few days of September but by Saturday 7th September 2013 they had been fixed and response times were back to normal.

There was virtually no service from the council website on Saturday 14 September 2013.  The "How can we help you?" page appeared, and some of the features from the A-Z Index were available, but unfortunately none of the facilities referenced during our website update were working.  Some gave a "Service Unavailable" response, and some gave no response at all and access attempts simply timed out every time we tried.

Also on Saturday 14 September 2013, there was no access at all to any planning information.
On Sunday 15 September 2013 there was some improvement in that the application summary information could be viewed, but all attempts to view planning documentation failed.  We were unable to complete that day's website update because of this.
Access to the planning data was restored on Monday 16th September.

There have been a small but inconvenient number of occasions over the last few weeks where planning applications have been put on-line with documents in a format that could not be read on most home computers.  When we have reported these, they have promptly been converted into the usual format.  However, we do not need to examine every document on every planning application, so there may be others who may be encountering this problem on entries we did not report.  If so, then an e-mail to Development Control quoting the planning application reference number and the date and description of the problem file along with a description of the problem - that the file is in a format that cannot be read - should see the problem corrected.

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Diary of Events:  October 2013

The problem of the "History" tab on the summary screen only giving the current application, first observed in November 2012 which persisted until March 2013 when it appeared fixed, was observed to be once again a problem on Sunday 13th October 2013.  It is not known whether the problem had existed before that date, which is when the recurrence was first brought to our attention.

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Diary of Events:  November/December 2013

The problem of the "History" tab on the summary screen only giving the current application, first reported in October 2013 (see above) continued through these two months.  Apart from that there were no significant problems with the service.

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Diary of Events:  January 2014

The problem of the "History" tab on the summary screen only giving the current application, was noticed to be resolved when we checked in mid-January.  We haven't got an exact date for when it was resolved.

The other shortfall that we noticed is more of a clerical problem than anything wrong with the system.  We are noticing occasional applications where the summary screen omits the postcode from the address, even when that information is on the Application Form.  We are also noticing documents filed with the wrong description.  For instance we spotted an objection comment from a member of the public filed under the description "Application Form", another which was a clearly stated objection filed as a support comment, and a Watchdog comment filed as an "OS Extract".  Provided the Case Officer receives and reads all the public comments there is no harm done that affects the decision-making, but anybody just looking at the documents list without reading the documents themselves might get the wrong impression of the balance between "For" and "Against".  Some quality control checking wouldn't go amiss.

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Diary of Events:  February 2014

We have found a few multi-page documents where not all the pages are scanned to the same size.  It is not a legibility problem because the small pages can always be enlarged on screen, but it is a nuisance.  Again, it is a matter of quality control rather than a fault with the system itself.

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Diary of Events:  March 2014

March was relatively trouble-free as far as the service was concerned, with only one outage reported on the evening of Thursday 27 March 2014 when for a while any attempt to access documents received a Server Error response.  The problem was repaired that same evening.

However, we have noticed and reported a few documents which failed to appear on-line.

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Diary of Events:  May 2014

After a trouble-free April, a rather unusual problem arose in May.

We had our attention drawn to some legibility problems concerning some of the public comments lodged on the planning website from the on-line comment facility.  We did a sample check (which did not cover all possible dates) and found that there were some days where the usual font had not been used, and instead there was an alternative which is far more difficult to read on a laptop screen.  Here are the examples:
Unusual text   Usual text

The text style on the right is the normal one.  We found examples of it in use on 21 May and before, and on 2 June and afterwards.  The text style on the left is the one that is difficult to read.  We found examples of this in use between 27 May and 1 June 2014.  We can only assume that this alternative font was used by mistake, perhaps by somebody who doesn't usually handle on-line comments.  Hopefully with the dates given as a clue, it might be possible to identify which member of staff needs training, and which comments in the wrong font need to be corrected for legibility.

We had also noticed and reported a few documents which failed to appear on-line.

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Diary of Events:  June 2014

There were a couple of incidents reported on Sunday 22 June 2014, when the Application Search facility replied with "There was a problem in the repeater process ..." rather than the results expected.  However, this appeared to be transient because when we tested again a few minutes later, all was working normally again.

We pursued a problem that an application had drawings that had so much information on a composite drawing that it proved impossible to find a magnification that made the drawing able to be evaluated whilst still allowing the text to be read.  Our suggestion that such drawings should be rejected at the validation process failed because currently validation is concerned with completeness, and not legibility.  With the decision that planning documentation should only be made available online comes a responsibility to ensure that drawings are suitable for use by that method.  The current validation rules render the planning system unfit for purpose in that respect.

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Diary of Events:  July 2014

We consider unfit for purpose the drawings that are so complex that they cannot be displayed on a typical home computer.  We are currently checking complaints from members concerning three applications that are causing difficulties.

Praise where praise is due, and from the middle of July 2014 there was a usability improvement:  Clicking on a council website planning document link now opened the document in a reusable new window, which makes it much easier to view a set of documents;  the first one viewed no longer overwrites the list of documents.  Unfortunately though when we looked on 27 July 2014 this beneficial facility had disappeared.

On 14 July 2014 there was a recurrence of the text style problem we reported in May 2014, see above.

On Thursday 31 July 2014 there was an extended period in the evening when all attempts to view planning documents resulted in an error display headed "Tomcat Error".  This had been rectified by the following morning.

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Diary of Events:  August 2014

There were a number of reports during the month that some drawings on some applications would not display on members' home computers.  We examined the offending drawings and the problem appears to be one of the complexity of the drawing rather than the file size; and the problem is seen on Windows PCs and Apple Macintosh devices.

We consider unfit for purpose the drawings that are so complex that they cannot be displayed on a typical home computer.  We have established that it is not the raw size of a file that is the main problem, it is the fact that some PDF files are submitted with drawings composed of several layers.  Low specification computers and older rendering software find such files problematic.  We recommend that such presentations should be rejected during the validation process.

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Diary of Events:  July 2015

After a long period of reliable service, we encountered a fault on Saturday 25 July 2015, when every attempt to use the Application Search facility returned an error "A problem has ocurred in the repeater process, either obtaining data or replacing tags.  Please check Datashare configuration and template", and the same error message was given when attempting to view the Weekly List.  Aside from the spelling mistake in the word "occurred", the advice in the message is meaningless to the public (for instance, what is "Datashare configuration"?).  This suggested a failure in the system rather than a predictable error condition which would be intended to be passed on to the public.

It was working OK the following day.

Diary of Events:  September 2015

On Saturday 26th September in the afternoon all attempts to examine planning documents resulted in an error response:  "An internal error has occurred, please try later".  The problem has persisted into Sunday, so although we are aware that there have been appeals against some planning decisions, we are unable to access the details to record them on our website.  The fault did not show during the following weekdays.

Diary of Events:  October 2015

On Saturday 3rd October it was also impossible to access planning documents the following weekend, and the reason given was "Due to essential maintenance ...".  This may be to rectify the error reported last week, but it again frustrated our attempts to bring parts of our website up to date.

On Sunday 18 October a problem when accessing planning documents was noticed, though it may also have existed earlier.  The list of documents associated with a planning application and the description of it appeared correctly under the Documents tab, but all attempts to view the contents of the documents resulted in a format error, regardless of whether it is a drawing, a form or a report.  This appeared to be common to every planning application available online.  The problem was resolved by the next day.

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Diary of Events:  March 2016

After a long period of reliable service, we encountered a number of faults during the week 29 February to 6 March.  We also discovered that the links to planning applications which are included on the Watchdog website produced an error response.  Subsequent investigation revealed that the council system now had a different command structure to the one they had used previously, and the old one we had been using no longer worked.  We have corrected all the Watchdog links in the 6 March update, so this problem has now been resolved.

We also discovered that the system was unavailable for a period at the beginning of the week, and even when it was made available again there are features which no longer function properly; for instance the Property History tab does not provide the history.  The number of entries appears to be correct, but every one of the entries shows the application number of the current application.  However, the history is still available by clicking on the box numbered "1" on the map, for those applications where the map does show the correct location (some don't).  Thus for a lot of the applications, there is a work-around.  We have been informed that the developers are aware of a number of defects and are working on correcting them as soon as possible.  We haven't been told how long this might take.

We test with a range of browsers going back as far as 2008 to make sure that the Watchdog website remains functioning for readers with old computers and our pages always work, but we can't do anything about the pages maintained by other people where we only provide links.

One benefit we have noticed is that those using the very oldest browsers, who up until now have not had the map displayed and saw just an empty box, can now see the map detail.  Those with newer computers and up to date browsers would not have noticed problems displaying maps and we did not expect the council to change its system for obsolete equipment so we did not report it.  The fact that this council update which created so many problems has also accidentally fixed one they didn't know they had, was totally unexpected.  On the other hand, some of the more recent planning applications do not display their map on the very latest browser, and a box saying No results found appears when a map box is left blank.

By 12 March, all these problems appear to have been resolved.

During the weekend 19 and 20 March, there were occasions when selecting a valid link (eg trying to view a document selected from the list of documents on an application) when the response of Page Not Found is received.  Trying the same link repeatedly at 10 second intervals eventually displays the output, so clearly the link is good and it is the processing of the navigation to it which is erratic.

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Diary of Events:  May 2016

On Sunday 29 May there was one intermittent problem, where occasionally an attempt to view the document summary gave an error referring to a process linking problem.  Trying again a few seconds later gave the expected list of documents.  It was here that the other problem showed.  Every attempt to view any document gave an error "File does not begin with '%PDF-'".  When we investigated the file contents it was in web page format and simply said "Idox Error" followed by "Click for help", yet clicking for help simply gave a "Server not found" error.  The symptoms suggest that part of the service is not running.  Whether by accident or deliberate work on the system over the Bank Holiday weekend, we cannot tell.

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Diary of Events:  August 2016

There were availability problems with the planning website on Sunday 28 August 2016.  The Summary screen displayed as normal, as did the list of associated documents, but all attempts to view the individual planning documents resulted in a PDF file which contained HTML code which announced an IDOX Error.

The irritating additional clutter on the Application Summary screens has now been removed.  This could explain the inability to view planning documents while the software update was being installed and tested.

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Diary of Events:  October 2016

There were intermittent problems on Saturday afternoon 1st October when a number of attempts to retrieve planning information resulted in an error report of a failure in a repeater process.  Retrying eventually delivered the desired documents.

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Diary of Events:  July 2017

We cannot repair the council's facility when it has this type of fault, but we have ensured that the links on Watchdog's "New Ones" and "Full Set" pages do deliver the appropriate results when the council's "Application Search" facility won't.

After a considerable period where there were niggles like occasional "Failed to retrieve" error messages which could be circumvented by reloading the page, throughout Saturday 22 July 2017 all attempts to use the "Application Search" facility resulted in a very large number of irrelevant references, even when the Application Number entered is correct.

It was working normally again (though with the niggles more apparent than previously) the following day, and it was back to normal after the weekend.

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