Author: Cyril Richert
“The website of the Wandsworth Council went to being one of the best and more advanced local government website in Britain, and maybe in the world, to a constant reason of worries and frustrations” was more or less what Tony McDonald, Borough Planner, said at our last meeting at the Town Hall (I cannot promise a Verbatim as I am quoting from memory, but it was that meaning anyway).
The website of Wandsworth Borough Council (WBC) has been a recurring subject of complaints for months from local residents, visitors, but also by civil servants working for the Council. It was such a major item that it was raised to a full topic at the end of the last Planning Forum meeting in September.
Reporting on the meeting I wrote:
“You might have noticed that the planning section of the website had recurrent problems. Actually it was unavailable most of the weekend in July and August, often when people have time to consult the information and give their views. For the record, a major upgrade was planned (unfortunately without clear notification) during the bank holiday weekend at the end of August where power regulation was set, but it did not fix the issue. The council officers are well aware of the problem and as frustrated as anyone else trying to use the service.”
First weekend of October: down (as planned)
A very important upgrade was due to happen on the planning section of the website and the “View related documents” function was suspended on the 29th and 30th September and 1st October 2010. It was meant to improve the performance and reliability of the existing planning searches.
Second weekend of October: down
However on the following weekend, again (and as usual) the website experienced problems, displaying (October,10th):
As I liaised directly with the person in charge of the service, I was told that wandsworth.gov.uk was now experiencing problems with its ISP (Internet Service Provider). In order to address the issue they said they were about to start migration to a new managed hosting solution (eventually) with the company Rackspace  in the upcoming weeks.
Third weekend of October: down
And this weekend, guess what? A familiar display when searching the planning application database:
“We had all hoped that the planning web site would be fixed by now ( I thought 8 Oct had been the deadline quoted at the Planning Forum) but unfortunately I now find that the list of weekly applications for 14 October now includes old applications that have already been dealt with and no current ones .
On the other hand I am still unable to open “related documents” on live applications.
Could you advise when we are likely to get a reliable and uninterrupted access to the planning database?“
As I said during the planning forum meeting in September, there are also issues on other pages (moderngov pages – where you can find Councillors, meetings, agendas, minutes and related documents – were also inaccessible at a time where I needed to comment supporting documents prior to a Council meeting). The whole website is therefore currently unreliable .
We deserve a fair consultation with all electronic documents available at all time
From the 29th of October will start a consultation on Development Management Policies Document and Site Specific Allocations Document. It says that the documents will be viewable though the consultation portal during consultation and can be downloaded below.
For those who have use the consultation portal in the past, they already know about the difficulty to find anything on the portal. The Putney Society sent a formal letter of complaint to WBC saying:
“Because individuals’ comments are broken up under “consultation points” in the system used by the Council for their planning strategy consultation, it is almost impossible to see how many contributions have been received and the overall context of a submission. In addition the portal had technical failures which meant that access was denied to parts of the system until pointed out by a constituent and Putney Society member.”
You can read the full letter of the Putney Society HERE.
I sincerely hope that the Council will fix all issues by the end of the month as the multiple barriers currently raised on any fair consultation can only prevent local residents to participate to future debates, and go against the sincere wish of a vibrant local democracy.
Apparently they received very positive references about their service. This is also my experience and I am happy to confirm that the managed service provided by Rackspace is very high quality and should hopefully help to tackle the current record of problems. Using a managed server means that the company will monitor the server and address immediately any hardware issue. Also their dedicated support team available 24/7 should be able to help fixing any problem related to accessibility and availability.
 This is the reason why I often – when possible – download the documents from wandsworth.gov.uk and upload them on cjag.org as a simple link might no longer work whenever someone wants to refer to it.
UPDATE 18 Octobre 2010: We have received the following response from Martin Howell, Group Planner, Policy and Information:
The problems experienced over the second weekend in October affected the whole Council website, and I have been informed were unrelated to the problems experienced over the weekend, which only related to the planning pages.
I have accessed the website externally this morning. I did get an error when I did a search which should have returned a few hundred planning records, but was able to run a search for a smaller number of applications.
I was also able to view documents on live applications.
The weekly list labelled 14 October 2010, is incorrectly labelled and is a list from January.
I have asked a member of staff to investigate the problems and will get back to you when I have further information.
I have been informed that there as a disk failure on the computer that host the planning search facilities over the week-end, which resulted in the service being unavailable. A temporary work around has been put in place until a new disk can be installed.
I will arrange for the weekly list currently indicated as 14 October to be removed. A new list to be uploaded on Wednesday, following a colleague’s return from leave.