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Planning System

7. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): If he will make a statement on the role of parish and town councils in his planned revisions to the planning system. [81544]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty): Parish and town councils will continue to have an important role under our proposals for reform of the planning system. Where proposals or policies in a draft local development framework document affect a parish or town, we expect the council to be consulted and its views to be taken into account. Similarly, we shall continue to require local planning authorities to notify town and parish councils of any relevant planning application if requested to do so.

Lawrie Quinn : Does my hon. Friend accept that the type of skills and training that might be needed for parish and town councils to give planning work full consideration might demand extra resources? Will the proposals allow for such training and additional resources to be made available to those authorities?

Mr. McNulty: We are aware that the skills base in the planning profession has been denuded over successive years. We are keen to ensure that parish and town councils remain engaged in local planning and UDP—unitary development plan—processes. Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced, for the first year, #50 million for the planning development grant, aimed principally at local planning authorities. Clearly, however, if the skills increase in the local planning authorities, their interface and interaction with the parish and town councils will be all the more efficient, and that is what we want to encourage.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Does the Minister agree that parish councils are a vital part of democracy in counties such as Norfolk, and that parish councillors do tireless work on behalf of the community? Why, then, are the Government undermining them with the new draconian code of conduct and audit requirements? Why do they not simply leave the parish councillors to get on with the job they do so well?

Mr. McNulty: In terms of the planning process, which is the subject of the question, that is precisely what we are doing.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): As a sitting parish councillor, I have often been in receipt of

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rather odd decisions from the district level. Will the Minister reconsider the possibility of third-party appeals against permissions in certain circumstances?

Mr. McNulty: I am afraid that my hon. Friend will have to wait for the presentation of the planning and compulsory purchase Bill, which was outlined in the Queen's Speech. I suggest that he also read carefully the substantial responses that we received to the planning Green Paper consultations on third-party planning rights.

Equality Commission

8. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): What representations he has received about the Government's proposal to establish a single equality commission. [81545]

The Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women (Mrs. Barbara Roche): I have received many representations on the priorities and structure of equality institutions in Great Britain since I announced on 15 May the start of the project looking at these issues. On 23 October I published a consultation paper, and I am planning to make a series of visits beginning next week to hear views at first hand about these matters.

Julie Morgan : I know that my hon. Friend is aware that the Welsh Assembly has a statutory duty to promote equal opportunities as part of the Government of Wales Act 1998. Does she agree that a similar duty for the public sector would be a useful tool for any new commission?

Mrs. Roche: We are certainly looking at the experience of the various remote duties that we have introduced in recent years—it makes sense to learn from them before going further. I am looking forward to the visit that I hope to make to Swansea in January.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): The politically correct aim should be to achieve fairness, and the system needs to be effective. Will the Minister assure the House that she will learn the lessons of Northern Ireland, as some of us think that having a single body there was a bit premature?

Mrs. Roche: I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about such matters; I know that he has a long-standing interest in them. I have visited the commission in Northern Ireland where experience has been positive. I have also spoken to people with many different views, and we shall certainly learn the lessons.

Linda Perham (Ilford, North): Will the Minister recognise the positive contribution made by—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The House is far too noisy; it is unfair to hon. Members.

Linda Perham: Will the Minister recognise the positive contribution made by the XEqual rights on age"

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group towards the single equality commission that she is trying to set up, and the group's campaigning work against age discrimination?

Mrs. Roche: I agree with my hon. Friend. I also pay tribute to the age advisory forum, which I chair and which is made up of members from the voluntary sector, trade unions and employers. It has made a real contribution to the process.

Regional Government

9. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): If he will make a statement on his policy on assessing local readiness for referendums on regional elected assemblies. [81546]

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer given by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) only moments ago.

Mr. Turner : I thank the Minister for his right hon. Friend's answer. Does the Minister think that my constituents have more in common with Christchurch and Corfe Castle, or with Milton Keynes and Margate? If he is not sure, would he like to come to my constituency and find out?

Mr. Raynsford: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have a view on that, but ultimately the matter is for his constituents, and if they choose to express their view in a referendum they will be able to do so.

Matthew Green (Ludlow): Does the Minister accept that if we are looking to win referendums, we need to hold them in areas where they are most likely to be won? Why does he accept the boundaries put in place by the Conservatives, instead of setting up a review on which areas want to be in which regions?

Mr. Raynsford: As the hon. Gentleman knows well, boundary issues can be extremely time consuming, and can divert attention from priorities. Our view is that it is better to work with the existing building blocks of existing regions to ensure that progress can be made quickly—which is, I understand, his party's policy.

Telecommunications Masts

10. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): If he will make a statement on the siting of mobile phone masts. [81547]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty): Planning controls on telecommunications development are aimed at facilitating the provision of a modern telecommunications network while protecting the environment.

A code of practice encouraging greater consultation between mobile phone operators and local authorities was published on 11 November. The code is a guide to

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the siting of mobile phone masts produced jointly by representatives of central and local government and the mobile phone industry.

Mr. Chapman : Although the code of best practice is certainly a step in the right direction, does my hon. Friend agree that, rightly or otherwise, there is still considerable public misgiving about the health risks associated with the siting of masts? Does he agree that those perceptions need to be addressed, however misguided they may or may not be, and that operators and communities need to consult more, and more openly, about the siting of masts in future?

Mr. McNulty: I am certainly aware of the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend. He knows that, among other changes, we have strengthened public consultation requirements on proposals for masts 15 m or less high, so that they are the same as those for planning applications. We have also increased the time for an authority to deal with prior-approval applications to 56 days, increased fees to enable authorities to carry out full public consultation, and underlined the fact that school governors must be consulted on all proposals for new masts on or near a school or college. We have no immediate plans to amend the planning arrangements further, but we keep things constantly under review.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given the importance of maximising the effectiveness of mobile phone use, and simultaneously, of minimising the inconvenience of mast locations, will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what assessment he has made of the potential effectiveness of cross-network roaming?

Mr. McNulty: The short answer is no, I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman—but I shall be more than happy to write to him. I simply repeat that we have no plans to go beyond the amendments that we have already made to the regulation framework, although the matter is kept constantly under review. We have taken full cognisance of the Stewart report, but as for cross-network roaming, we will have a cup of tea later.

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