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Problems with Torfaen Council’s planning applications website

A message that was displayed on Torfaen council\'s planning website.
A message that was displayed on Torfaen council's planning website.

A COUNCIL has said a failure in its dedicated website for planning applications only impacted public access and not its internal system.

Members of the public have been unable to view planning applications planned for their streets and neighbourhoods as crucial information hasn’t been displayed on the planning public access service website that is intended to allow people to view plans and all related documents.

But Torfaen Borough Council – which has admitted it doesn’t know for how many weeks the service has been unavailable – has said only members of the public were affected, meaning staff, who are able to work from home, continued to have access to the documents.

Information that wasn’t available to view included comments from members of the public, statutory consultees such as Natural Resources Wales, Welsh Water and various professional experts as well as drawings and plans.

The website failed to display documents from August though the service had been restored sometime during the autumn but was down again during December. It was restored to working order during Wednesday, January 3.

Without the documents being displayed on the website, which is meant to be available 24-hours a day, seven days a week, anyone using the site was unable to access further details on planning applications unless they went in person to the council’s planning office in New Inn, Pontypool.

A council spokeswoman said: “The downtime only impacted our public-facing system, not our internal back-office systems. Planners were able to work both on-site and remotely without interruption.

“We acknowledge the inconvenience and frustration experienced by customers unable to access documents and plans during this period and apologise for the disruption. We are committed to documenting the issues and solutions to minimize the risk of similar problems in future system enhancements.”

She added: “Unfortunately, we don’t have the number of weeks the system was down available to us.”

Llantarnam independent councillor Alan Slade, who is a member of the council’s planning committee, said: “Access to the documents is crucial. You have to look at the documents really to understand an application, so that is disappointing and very poor.”

Though there is no suggestion documents wouldn’t have been available to planning committee members – who are only asked to decide a small percentage of applications which are usually the most complex and controversial – the ability to see all plans and information submitted as part of an application gives members of the public an insight into the planning process.

Cllr Slade said councillors only have limited powers to decide applications and that the availability of documents is central to helping the public follow applications and understand how decisions are made.

Paul Parsons, of Brynmawr-based architectural services firm Creation Design Wales, said the failure of Torfaen council’s website had caused him problems as he has around 12 applications currently lodged with its planning department.

He said: “These websites are absolutely essential as these days I don’t think anyone goes into a planning department to ask to look at drawings. It used to be you’d go to the council offices and view paper copies, but that is almost obsolete now.”

But Mr Parsons said he does appreciate the Torfaen website – which uses a common format to many other planning authorities – when it is working: “It has caused me problems but it’s not as bad as Blaenau Gwent as that is the only council I know of anywhere in the UK that does not have an open public access planning portal. That causes huge problems.”

The Torfaen council spokeswoman said it has been working since summer 2023 to “enhance the security and supportability” of its planning systems and it said problems following the “final phase of migration and upgrade for public access”, between December 19 and 23, couldn’t be addressed immediately due to the holidays.

Although there was limited public access the documents couldn’t be displayed which the council said appeared to be due to a “blocked connection between two servers crucial for presenting documents”.

In October, Blaenau Gwent Borough Council’s cabinet was told a new website to show planning applications lodged with it is due to brought into use in early 2024.

A Blaenau Gwent spokeswoman said: “We acknowledge that a website upgrade is required in order to provide an improved experience for members of the public and professionals interacting with the planning process in Blaenau Gwent. We are currently addressing this and a new website is due to go live this year.”

She added its planning department is “always contactable by telephone and e-mail” with details on its website, to answer any concerns or queries and to advise people how they can be involved including speaking at committee meetings.

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Problems with Torfaen Council’s planning applications website