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Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): My hon. Friend asks whether there is an answer to the problem of the democratic deficit. Often, insufficient candidates put themselves forward to fill the places on parish councils. That happens in a very few cases in my constituency in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. The answer lies in   the title of my hon. Friend's debate—the implication that parish councils and parish councillors have little or no power. If they are given more power—the communes in France have power—we will find that people turn out for elections and that there is competition for the seats available. That is the case at the commune level in France, and no doubt the same would happen with parish councils throughout this country. Surely the answer is that we need to devolve some appropriate powers to parish councils.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a valuable point. People put themselves forward for election and turn out to vote if it means something. We see that in the House. In constituencies which are hard fought—marginal constituencies—turnout is extremely high. My constituency is one of them. It has been a traditional marginal, which I always win, but by nothing as vulgar as a four-figure majority. It means that we have one of the highest turnouts in the country. If the role of parish councils were strengthened and better understood, people would be more likely to put themselves forward and we would have more hotly contested elections.

Mr. Bellingham: The hon. Gentleman has been generous in giving way. He is in the middle of an extremely impressive speech, which resonates with anyone who understands the countryside. Time and again parish councillors tell me that more people who are involved in the community and who have a great deal to offer would stand if they felt that the decisions of the parish council were listened to by, for example, planning authorities. They tell me that time and again what they say is ignored.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman brings me back to the main tenor of my speech. That is the principal concern for many parish councils, particularly the smaller ones. They feel ignored. They feel that there is a lack of recognition of their role in the process and that they are wasting their time giving great care to consideration of development control planning if nobody at a higher level takes a blind bit of notice. That
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applies not just to planning. I mentioned affordable housing earlier. Parish councils have tremendous potential for playing a role in seeing through the acquisition of appropriate and affordable housing in their parish, from the point of site identification to the point of allocation. That is not done well at present, and parish councils are often overlooked as a resource in that process.

The Government's rhetoric suggests that they intend to recognise the role of parish councils in planning. Since the rural delivery review in 2003—the so-called Haskins review—they have consistently stressed that the role of parish councils is important, and they have supported that role by, for instance, working with the National Association of Local Councils in developing quality assessment and training. Question marks still remain for the future and in the present, and I hope that the Minister will say something about the future in the light of press comment in the past few days.

We know that the Government are seriously considering the future of local government in this country. On unitary authorities, they are considering whether it is better to have the present two-tier system in shire counties and rural areas by which parish councils exist below both a district council and a county council or whether it would be better to reduce that to a parish council and a unitary authority. I am a former county councillor, a former leader of a county council and a   former leader of a group on the Association of County and City Councils, so I have some knowledge. I   remember the previous local government review, which was a difficult process that turned colleagues at different tiers against one another as they advanced the case for their own authorities and their own way of doing things. The arguments were often equally valid—the role of district councils is closer to the public whom they serve, while county councils, as strategic authorities, have the scope to get better value for money through economies of scale.

There is an argument for unitary authorities, but the Government will make a big mistake if they repeat the 1972 local government changes, which not only instituted new patterns for local government, but told people that they no longer lived where they believed and continued to believe that they lived, which is a point that applies to the creation of the so-called county of Avon. People do not care who collects their dustbins, but they know whether they grew up a Somerset man or a Gloucestershire man, and they do not want to be told that their culture, history and geography has been turned upside down. If the Government want the process of moving unitary authorities to succeed, then I   advise them, however the local authority boundaries are determined, that they should allow the cultural and historic boundaries to remain so that people can still say, "I live in Somerset, but my dustbins are collected by South Somerset council", which would allow people to maintain their identities. That is an aside, but it is an important consideration.

If we are to have unitary authorities, they will by definition be more remote than the present district councils. Such local authorities should be able to consider matters and deliver services at a more local
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level, in which case the role of the parish council will become even more important as the voice of the local community.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this worthwhile Adjournment debate. Does he agree that planning is one of the most emotive issues in a local community and that district councils and county councils often feel just as powerless as the parish council? The problem often concerns central Government planning targets, planning guidance and planning inspectors, who overrule the local authority's decision in one third of cases. More power should certainly be given to parish councils and to local authorities generally, but the power should be taken away from central Government and given to local authorities and parish councils.

Mr. Heath: I agree with the hon. Gentleman to a great extent. Since I was first engaged in local government, I   have seen a steady erosion of the discretion available to local government, at any level, to have an effect on the future of its communities. It is constantly looking over its shoulder and thinking, "What will a planning inspector make of this?", before reaching a decision. I   am afraid that I take a slightly iconoclastic view, but   I think that, in planning, precedent is the worst enemy of sensible decision making. It prevents local authorities from making the right decision in support of their local community instead of that which is simply what others have done before or may do in future. I will touch on the exact point that the hon. Gentleman raised in a moment.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has secured an important debate. The number of Members in the Chamber for an Adjournment debate shows how successful he has been and how important it is.

This morning, I had a phone call from Councillor Stephen North, who is the leader of Rushden town council in my constituency. It is the second biggest town in the constituency, with a population of 32,000. He firmly believes that if more planning powers were given to the town council, it would be more efficient and more accountable.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words.

I want to deal briefly with housing and then go on to   the generality of planning. The local council in Leigh-on-Mendip—a similar situation has arisen in the neighbouring council of Batcombe—feels that it is being held over a barrel by Mendip district council, which is saying, "You must agree to this low-cost housing scheme, and you have a very limited time scale in which to do so, or the funding will be gone." This is a crucial matter for our community. These are small villages, and the pattern of housing will affect the environment for many years to come. The local council feels that it should have been involved in the process right from the   start—that it should have been able to identify appropriate sites, allowed to consult its community in an effective way, and given a role in carrying it forward. It believes that it is inappropriate to be told that it has
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so many days, rather than weeks or months, to agree, or it will not have the development that it knows is needed by young people growing up in the community who do not want to go into exile from the village in which they grew up.

Andrew George: Will my hon. Friend give way?

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