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The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill): I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for providing the opportunity to discuss Hillingdon's planning performance. He has set out very clearly some of the problems facing Hillingdon, and I am delighted to have this chance to explain how the Government are tackling poor performance and supporting improvement by local planning authorities across the country, and in particular to explain where Hillingdon is in this process.

As part of the best value process, the development control performance of planning authorities is assessed using three measures: the percentage of major planning applications dealt with in 13 weeks; the percentage of minor applications dealt with in eight weeks; and the percentage of other applications dealt with in eight weeks. Hillingdon has shown a consistent underperformance according to all three best value planning indicators since 2000–01, and it is on that basis that it has been designated a "standards authority" in three consecutive years. It is one of six authorities nationally with which my Department has actively engaged because of poor performance.

As a result of Hillingdon's designation as a standards authority in 2003–04, my Department appointed consultants to examine its performance. Their remit was to review and assess the actions taken by Hillingdon since it was inspected during the previous year by consultants from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. We wanted to know what progress the
 
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authority was making in improving its performance, particularly in terms of working towards the ODPM's national targets for handling planning applications. The consultants were also asked to identify the barriers to further performance improvement and the priorities that Hillingdon needed to address.

The consultants will be reporting shortly on their inspection of the authority's planning service. The report is confidential between the ODPM and Hillingdon, but the borough has had the opportunity to comment on a draft. Hillingdon is responding to the consultants' work by reviewing its improvement plan to ensure that it properly addresses the problems that the consultants are identifying. We will be monitoring progress very carefully through the Government office for London.

Why is Hillingdon facing such problems in improving performance? There are a number of reasons, including the need to upgrade IT systems, to improve internal guidance on handling planning applications and to simplify process, along with a difficulty in recruiting and retaining permanent planning staff. Other authorities are facing similar problems, and they are managing to overcome them and to make progress through good management and a clear, strong focus on performance improvement. We will, as I have said, be monitoring Hillingdon's performance closely. If we do not see the improvements that are needed, we will consider what further action might be needed to intervene more directly.

My hon. Friend made a serious allegation about the way in which Hillingdon has been recording and submitting statistics on planning performance to the ODPM. May I say how seriously I, too, regard these allegations? He first came to see me before Christmas to draw these matters to my attention, and he left a number of papers relating to these allegations. My officials immediately passed those papers to the Audit Commission and asked it to investigate as a matter of urgency.

I understand that, as a result of these allegations coming to light and of the district auditor's inquiry, Hillingdon set up an internal inquiry to look at the specific allegations, and it appointed an external consultant to look more widely at its systems. These investigations revealed that the council had systematically been returning incorrect data on its development control performance to the ODPM. It had been recording the end-date for handling a planning application as the date on which the council made its decision, rather than as the date of dispatch of the decision to the applicant, which might be some time later. My hon. Friend has alluded to these practices. The correct procedure for recording these decisions is clearly set out in the forms through which local authorities have to make their returns. The result of these practices was to make Hillingdon's performance appear better than it actually was.

This audit and related concerns about the misreporting are being externally reviewed as part of the district auditor's investigation. In the course of these investigations, my hon. Friend passed me a copy of an internal Hillingdon communication that was highly relevant to the inquiries. My officials immediately passed it to the district auditor.
 
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I understand that the district auditor has received the council's report of its own investigation into how it has reported its development control performance. He has undertaken his own testing of the council's development control records and is undertaking interviews with a number of officers and former officers.

I further understand that the district auditor aims to complete his inquiries this month and to report as soon as possible thereafter. We are pressing him to do so as a matter of urgency, but I do understand that, if he were to find fault with any individual, he would need to give the person concerned the opportunity to comment on his findings and that may have an effect on the exact timing of his report.

The district auditor is the appointed official who has responsibility for investigating allegations of this nature. He has the powers that he needs to carry out a thorough examination. The remedies open to him vary, depending on the seriousness of his findings. He can report his conclusions to the council, setting out the issues and what action is needed to secure improvements. If he considers the situation sufficiently serious, he can make a public interest report. Such a report would be in the public domain. The council would be required to consider and respond to it formally and it would have to advertise the meeting at which the report was considered and publish its response.

Obviously, misreported figures could affect the planning delivery grant, which is partly based on development control performance. Hillingdon received a planning delivery grant of £223,586 for 2004–05. Planning delivery grant was allocated mainly on the basis of the council's performance in development control—dealing with planning applications—and development plan making, along with an allocation for meeting demand to supply housing in the south-east growth area.
 
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Hillingdon's grant was the lowest of the London boroughs. We received the corrections to Hillingdon's development control returns in time to enable the corrected versions to be taken fully into account in calculating the grant to be paid for 2004–05. Had that not been the case, we would have had to take action to seek repayment of grant paid in respect of incorrect figures.

In order to reduce the risk of similar problems in future, the ODPM has collaborated with the Audit Commission in preparing new and clearer guidance to auditors about the checks that they should be making and the things that they should be looking out for in auditing the arrangements for recording planning performance.

In conclusion, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I once again thank my hon. Friend for raising this important topic? I think that what I have said underlines the seriousness with which I personally and the Government take this matter. We are working constructively with many local planning authorities up and down the land to promote and drive improvements in performance. Hillingdon is one of a handful of authorities where we are closely engaged in monitoring performance.

These allegations of manipulation of the planning statistics, which the district auditor is investigating, render the situation more serious still. I cannot pre-empt the findings of his inquiry, but I can reassure the House that we will take any published findings into account in charting our future engagement with the local planning authority and deciding what steps need to be taken.

Question put and agreed to.




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