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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) for initiating this Adjournment debate and I congratulate him on securing it. I note that he
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advised the House that the Minister of Communities and Local Government will visit Birtley in January. I am sure that he will study the text of this debate as part of his preparation for his visit.

I understand that the Birtley community partnership is an active and enthusiastic group of people who are committed to making a real difference by ensuring that their town centre in the north-east of England is a lively and attractive, yet safe community environment. That is as it should be. It is essential for the vitality, welfare and safety of every community that people of all ages and from all walks of life engage constructively and effectively with each other and with other stakeholders in their area—such as the local council, businesses and the voluntary sector—to enrich the local economy, to provide jobs, to provide a safe and healthy local environment, and to encourage social cohesion, a strong local culture and pride in the community, much as my hon. Friend described.

Those are just some of the elements of a sustainable community that can help to underpin the action programme of the sustainable communities plan that the Government are working towards implementing. I am delighted to hear of such a fine example of community partnership in my hon. Friend's constituency. I have no doubt that other hon. Members will rush to tell me of equally exciting examples in their own constituencies and that they will have their own versions of people such as the Dr. Gibson to whom my hon. Friend referred several times.

The Government believe that local authorities must involve the people in their communities in developing the vision for their area. People should have more say in the way that places are run. They should have the opportunity to help improve local services, including schools, health services and the police, so that those services respond to the community's needs.

Local communities should be invited to offer ideas about what the vision for their area should be and how that can be achieved. Communities should be given every opportunity to play a full part in the processes of drawing up specific plans and policies, and they should also be consulted on proposals for development and regeneration of their area.

To deliver sustainable communities, we need an efficient, inclusive planning system. To be inclusive, that system needed more and better community involvement. It is for those reasons that the Government undertook a major review of the system that culminated in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. Regional and local plan making were reformed, with one of the aims being to enhance community involvement. One of the key parts of drawing up the local development framework is a requirement for local authorities to prepare statements of community involvement.

Primarily, SCIs are statements of the local authority's policy for involving interested parties in preparing and revising local development documents and for consulting on planning applications. They set out the local vision and standards for community involvement and how they link with other initiatives, such as the
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community strategy. They should also reflect the needs of the whole community, and identify the diversity of local groups that need to be involved.

To encourage that process, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister published a good practice guide on diversity and equality in planning. I am pleased to hear that the Birtley exercise is just such an example of inclusive planning in practice. Community strategies, local development documents and parish plans are all valuable tools in establishing the local vision and putting it into action.

SCIs need not simply be about planning matters. Forward-looking authorities will be thinking about how such statements might be incorporated into their whole corporate culture when preparing other plans and programmes for the full range of their responsibilities.

A key feature of our approach is something called front loading, which means that local authorities must involve communities and stakeholders in their thinking at the earliest opportunity when they are considering the issues and the range of realistic options for dealing with them. Another theme of the new planning system is to examine critically the real geography of places, and we call that spatial planning. The example offered by Birtley, where a Planning for Real exercise has been used to inform a vision for the regeneration of the town centre, is what spatial planning is all about.

The Government recognise that community involvement takes time and resources. We understand that there are real pressures on local authorities, particularly when it comes to achieving targets for dealing with proposals. However, we believe that effective community involvement, although it may require up-front investment, can have real benefits that will enable local authorities to manage better the process for giving effect to their vision for the next 10 years or so.

There are many ways of involving communities and there is no right way or wrong way. Much will depend on the nature of the issue and the nature of the group or community that needs to be reached—and, as we know, some groups will be harder to reach than others.

My hon. Friend mentioned Planning for Real and the excellent work that Birtley community partnership has put into its exercise to improve the town centre, along with the crucial support of the local authority, Gateshead council. That is certainly one way to achieve effective engagement and I applaud the partnership's initiative.

The Royal Town Planning Institute describes Planning for Real as a method that uses simple models as a focus for people to put forward and prioritise ideas on how their area can be improved. I commend it as a highly visible, hands-on community development and empowerment tool, in which people of all abilities and backgrounds find it easy and enjoyable to engage. It seems especially effective for master planning an area or for developing urban design projects.

Hon. Members may be aware that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has helped to fund a useful community planning website that is run by the RTPI. It provides those interested with lots of helpful articles and guidance. In addition, the ODPM gives financial support to the RTPI's planning aid service. In fact, the Government are providing £4 million over three years so that it can expand its services and be more proactive,
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especially in communities that are harder to reach. An important part of its brief is to help local communities to engage effectively with the local planning system. I understand that at least some of its regional offices have had a significant role in helping local authorities and communities to carry out Planning for Real exercises.

The planning aid service exists by using a regional network of more than 700 qualified volunteers and I pay tribute to them for giving up their time to help communities. As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has said, we are putting people first. We must raise the quality of what and how we build. We must improve the quality and delivery of the services that people need. We can do that best if communities are involved at the earliest practicable stage. Once again, I
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congratulate my hon. Friend and his constituents in the Birtley community partnership on the example that they have set. They have shown us that community involvement can be real and effective. I am sure that they have learned a lot from Planning for Real in Birtley and will be able to build on their experience.

I am equally confident that, with my hon. Friends' enthusiastic support, the community partnership will go from strength to strength. He paid tribute to the town of Birtley and its people, and I am sure that the House is grateful for his contribution.

Question put and agreed to.

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