Demystifying Planning – how chatbots can help

Unless you’re a serial house owner/mover, live on the doorstep of a new development or are troubled by a neighbour’s intended plans,  chances are that you’ll have come into contact with the planning legal system pretty infrequently.

Until 2013 that is, when the first permitted development rights were granted.  Looking to save, house owners are taking the opportunity to improve rather than move.  According to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, comparing the last quarter of 2017 with the same period in 2018 (https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/planning-applications-statistics#2018 ):

• larger householder extensions increased by two per cent;

• ‘all other’ permitted development applications increased by 30 per cent

In theory, it should be easy for citizens to “self-serve” information about the many types of permitted development from the wealth of helpful information on local authority websites.  In practice,  anxiety over the rules (dimensions/materials, potential impact on a listed building, withdrawal of specific rights and many more) means that owners want reassurance that they can go ahead without permission. 

“Prior Notifications”, the formal route for finding out if a domestic development is permitted or not, has only increased officers’ workloads – statistics show that 57% of 180,200 applications submitted didn’t actually need permission.  (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/787526/Planning_Applications_October_to_December_2018_-_statistical_release.pdf)

Conversational AI – advice and reassurance

Natural anxiety and the complexity of planning law mean that citizens want personal reassurance from a planning professional and that takes dedicated officer time.

Citizens often complain that the call centre can’t help, they can’t get through to an officer or that their emails go unanswered.  If an officer can’t help in person, could conversational AI (chatbots) be the solution?

Whilst it’s generally true that no two cases are the same in planning, householder permitted development has very clear processes and programmatic rules that make this a prime candidate for AI. 

Microsoft self-learning chatbots offer authorities the potential to improve the user experience from day one and are increasingly effective over time.   Conversational AI, well-implemented, could provide instant responses to an estimated 50% of “standard” planning related queries across multiple channels.  To ensure that the user experience is positive, conversational AI can provide proactive updates and notifications (where these are not available for example through a council interactive portal).   Bots can also be trained to hand over to a human when an interaction fails or the citizen’s responses suggest that this is not the ideal route for their particular issue. 

It’s been estimated that in one unitary authority serving a population that’s projected to grow to 300,000 by 2025, combining chatbots with other machine learning processes could save over 5,000 man hours yearly (the equivalent to having 3 extra “virtual” planning staff per council).   That’s time that could be focussed on an ambitious home building target that may be difficult to reach otherwise given current planning staffing levels.

A strategic choice for a great customer experience

Today there is a vast quantity of data across organisations.   At the same time, the cost of cloud computing power has fallen significantly.  The availability of lower cost cloud infrastructure combined with  the emergence of new AI tools and algorithms that can handle increasingly complex tasks all contribute to your organisation’s ability to provide a better customer experience 24/7/365. The technology is available – and affordable.

The world’s largest cloud software/service providers have invested significantly in conversational AI seeing this as strategic to their customers’ digital service delivery.  Some are developing hybrid systems which combine handling  “short tail” enquiries (high certainty responses to a repetitive and limited set of service users’ questions/tasks) with “long-tail” behaviour (providing multiple possible answers generated automatically from supporting documentation for infrequent tasks). 

Planning is very document “heavy”.  Microsoft visual image recognition enables images to be processed as data and incorporated in chatbots, adding another dimension to the user experience.

The level of planning related enquiries coming in to a council will depend on many factors.  As well as those stemming from major applications for housing, windfarms or industrial development,  householder applications for small scale development can generate high call volumes from neighbours. That said, a typical council can receive around 8900 planning specific call centre enquiries (plus a similar number of emails and web forms) yearly.  It’s estimated that 40% of these interactions could be closed on the first call using the power of chatbots.  That reduces the number of interactions by around 7000, freeing at least 200 man days of capacity.  As the chatbot is trained to handle more complex interactions, this additional capacity can potentially double. More importantly, being able to interact with a chatbot 24/7/365 gives the citizen a more immediately productive experience.  

UK Local Government planning authorities currently receive over 3.5 million planning-related applications every year.  At the same time, there’s been a 14.6% fall in real-terms in expenditure on the planning function and a 15% overall fall in staff numbers between 2006 and 2016.  Only 44.1% of authorities have a local plan for new homes that is less than five years old. Without innovation and recruitment, 50% of authorities are predicted to fail the housing delivery test (300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s) incurring penalties as a result. https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Planning-for-new-homes.pdf

If data is locked away in non-machine readable, unstructured documents filed in proprietary file management systems, planning officers will find it hard to access any form of aggregated local data for strategic insight.  Combining a fully digital planning solution with Microsoft machine learning for process automation and AI tools, with the chatbot at the forefront of customer service,  will free up planners to focus on house building and commercial developments that are very much needed.

Where do we go from here?

Across all industries, it’s believed that 80% of activity is focused on low value admin and only 20%  on strategic customer interactions that support growth and positive outcomes.  Agile Applications aims to maximise use of Microsoft AI, machine learning and bots to streamline background administration tasks and support skilled employees to reduce mundane admin, freeing them to spend upwards of 80% of their time on high value activities and citizen engagement.

An Agile rapid proof-of-concept project can demonstrate how these technologies will work with your data and your organisation objectives.  We’ll help you to design an intelligent solution to improve business outcomes for a high-value business problem. 

Contact us via our site https://agileapplications.co.uk/contact/ or learn more about the PoC on the  Government Digital Market Place at https://www.digitalmarketplace.service.gov.uk/g-cloud/services/579813408150186

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