Parish Online Stories

Parish Online User Group: Inaugural Meeting Report

The Parish Online User Association held its inaugural meeting at Reading Town Hall on 17 October 2017.

The meeting was in two parts. The morning session was devoted to the formal establishment of the User Association, the voting in of the officers and a review of the Parish Online development plans and pricing/licensing policy. The afternoon session (which included guests from the National Association of Local Councils and County ALCs) was devoted to demonstrating how Bath and NE Somerset and West Sussex have successfully integrated Parish Online into their businesses, and how Parish Online has helped them to share data between the different tiers of local government and thus create efficient ‘joined-up-government’ between Counties, Districts and Parishes. In addition, the afternoon session examined the barriers to effective use of Parish Online and how to overcome them.

Constitution and Officers

The constitution of the Parish Online User Association (POLUA) was unanimously approved by the meeting. POLUA is a voluntary, non-profit making user network which acts as the representative body for Parish Online users. The aim of the User Association is to promote the effective use of Parish Online by sharing ‘best practice’ experience between users and by representing the needs of the users to GeoXphere.

Martin Laker (GIS Manager at Bath and NE Somerset) was elected as the Chairman of the User Association and Sue Furlong (Neighbourhood Engagement Officer, West Sussex County Council) was elected as the Deputy Chairman.

Development and Pricing

 Development: A major upgrade to the underlying Parish Online software has been in progress throughout 2017 to make it faster, more reliable and easier to maintain. This new system will not be ready for release to Parish Online users until mid-2018 and GeoXphere is working hard to make sure that when it is released it will look and feel similar to the current Parish Online system (although there will be some changes to the user interface). The User Association agreed that Parish Online for new users could use the updates version from mid-2018, but that existing users would continue to use the system for an extended period until they felt ready to switch over.

Pricing: The User Association agreed with the introduction of a new and simpler pricing model for Parish Online from November 2017. The new pricing is based on six population bands as follows ranging from £100/yr for a Parish with a population of 1000+ to £1500 for the largest town councils.

 However existing customers will not be affected by the new pricing and will continue to pay the old prices (with a minimal annual price increase of 5%)

Bath and NE Somerset and West Sussex ‘Best Practice’

Bath and NE Somerset (50 parishes) and West Sussex (163 parishes) have invested in Parish Online Group Licenses for all their parishes in order to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of data management. These projects have been underway for several years now and have been highly successful. However, the ‘lessons learned’ are also important to guide best practice for new Group Users.

Benefits of the B&NES and West Sussex Group Licences

  • Parishes are empowered to access and analyse the data they need to make better ‘evidence-based’ decisions
  • Parish Online makes parishes feel more in control and improves their morale
  • Parish Online encourages parishes to take on data collection work (eg in support of Neighbourhood Plans) and this attracts younger people in to parish management (a Key Aim of NALC’s Forward Plan)
  • A lot of parishes say that being provided with Parish Online is the ‘best thing that their Council has ever done for them’
  • Under a Group Licence parishes feel supported and part of a collective effort which significantly increases their chances of successfully adopting Parish Online as a management tool across the whole Parish Council
  • B&NES saves the entire cost of the Parish Online Group Licence in district efficiency savings (not having to support parishes with geographical information queries)
  • B&NES also saves the entire cost of its Street View data through efficiency savings. Street View is the most used dataset across all departments in Bath and NE Somerset and has cut the travel bill of the district by well over the 2% needed to fund the entire Street View cost.

Lessons Learned

Although both B&NES and West Sussex have successfully adopted Parish Online, they agree that success requires leadership, effort and determination. They urge other councils adopting Parish Online to learn these key lessons:

  • Support Meetings. It is vital to support parishes by holding a Kick-off Meeting and Annual Meetings to review progress and to discuss/agree the priorities for Parish Online over the next year.
  • Training: It is vital to monitor the use of Parish Online by each parish and to provide training and support as required.

Access to District and County Data

There are now nearly 900 users of Parish Online in England and Wales, but the majority of these users cannot access the data they need from their Districts and Counties in Parish Online. This is the single biggest barrier to more effective use of Parish Online and the User Association asked for the help of the National Association of Local Councils to address the problem. Even in West Sussex, where the County Council has bought a Group Licence for every Parish, only one of the five District Councils (Mid Sussex) has agreed to publish district datasets to parishes in a standard GIS format which could be used in Parish Online.

It is hard to understand why District Councils do not want to help their parishes by making district data (such as TPOs and Local Plans) available to them via Parish Online, especially since there is no cost to the District to do so.

The User Association concluded that in many cases districts are unwilling to co-operate because they fear that their power will be undermined if parishes have access to their data, and they fear that their GIS departments might be reduced in size if parishes can look after their own geographic information needs independently.

To address this problem, it was decided to take the following actions:

  1. Approach District CEOs and Community Liaison officers (rather than the GIS departments) and make the financial and effectiveness case for Parish Online
  2. Encourage NALC to make the case for a Digital Mapping system as an essential tool for effective parish management
  3. Lobby the Local Government Association (LGA) and the District Council Network (DCN) to ensure that Districts are required provide their data to Parishes in a standard GIS format (which would then allow GeoXphere to provide it to Parish Online users). The User Association believes that providing data in a form suitable for users is a Public Sector Information (PSI) requirement.
  4. Pursue a few test cases through Parish Online District Champions to break through the barriers to co-operation and to help establish the precedent that Districts are required to provide their data to parishes in a suitable format.

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