Will planning notices move from lamp posts to Google?

In Douglas Adams’ comic novel “The hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy”, the permanently bewildered Arthur Dent lies down in front of a bulldozer to prevent it destroying his house. He’s told by a jobsworth council worker that permission to demolish his home for a bypass had been available to view in the planning office for the past nine months.

[From “Computer Active” 27 Jan – 9 Feb]

“Yes.” Arthur replies “it was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet, stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard”.

Shortly after this Earth itself is demolished, which rather puts Arthur’s inconvenience into perspective. But his frustration has been shared by thousands of UK residents over the years, albeit without the threat of being mauled by one of the world’s big cats.

The traditional way to read a planning notice require visiting a library, scouring adverts in your local newspaper, or squinting at the microscopic text on signs strapped to lamp posts. The Government wants to make life easier by bringing notices online as part of its push to modernise the planning process. In doing so, it will tell local authorities they won’t have to print statutory notices in local newspapers. 

The past year has made this change more urgent, the Government said. Its “Planning for the Future” White Paper, published last August said that the Covid-19 pandemic “has highlighted the need for modern digital planning services that can be accessed from home”, rather than stored in dusty cabinets guarded by leopards.

Inevitably the scheme involves Google. It has given £1m to a project to build a single website on which all councils nationwide can publish planning notices, as well as about 800 local news websites.

You’ll be able to search the information for planning notices near you, and sign up for alerts realted to a particular area. Google will provide technical advice to the newspapers to help ensure the information reaches as many people as possible.

Google’s money comes from its Google News Initiative which funds projects that “work with the news industry to help journalism thrive in the digital age”.

It launched the scheme in 2018, following pressure from regulators and media over how much money it makes from adverts placed alongside news stories written by newspapers and websites.

Local newspapers say Goggle’s involvement will help compensate for money they’ll lose if councils stop advertising planning notices in print. They claim this is worth £10m a year to the UK newspaper industry, further wounding a sector already hit by falling advertising revenues caused by the pandemic. Publishers say that losing this money could put the jobs of 400 journalists at risk.

While welcoming the online scheme, publishers the Government to keep the local requirement for councils to place planning notices in newspapers. They point out rightly that many people don’t use the internet – around 1.3per cent (roughly 6.5 million) of the UK’s adult population – not to mention the many other millions who do go online but nevertheless prefer reading newspapers and magazines to websites.

For Goggle’s part, it hopes  such measures will prove it can coexist with traditional forms of media such as local newspapers, and therefore prevent or more likely delay Government regulation.

We don’t see any reason why notices shouldn’t appear online and in print. With such wide coverage, even Arthur Dent would probably have found the info he was looking for.