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Mr. Heath: I will. I am taking a lot of interventions, but I hope that the House recognises that, as we have an unprecedented amount of time for the debate, it is helpful to give hon. Members that opportunity.
Andrew George: My hon. Friend is making an important point about housing. In a previous life, before I came to this House, I encouraged parish councils to take the lead in the development process by setting up a working party, deciding on the housing association and the site, and working with local authorities' housing and planning departments to drive through the development process as regards meeting their affordable housing needs. It can be done, but it must be with the assistance of the local authority and the recognition by Government that parish councils have a pivotal role.
I want to consider planning in general because, as hon. Members from all parties have pointed out, it causes the most frustration for parish councillors, who feel that they simply do not get their point of view across. That happens even in the context of district councils, which are eager to hear local voices and effect their wishes. Somerset district council, which is one of two in my constituency, has led good practice. A long time ago, it established local area committees to devolve decision making lower than district council level to give local people an opportunity to be genuinely involved in planning decisions.
Even in South Somerset, which I consider an example of good practice in planning, there are problems. That is largely due to the Government's targets and the requirement for increasing the speed of resolving planning decisions beyond what is appropriate for the sort of area that I represent. I shall explain that.
Clearly, it is not a bad thing for the Government to encourage district councils to make planning decisions as quickly as possible. It is reasonable to request that, but what is the consequence in respect of what district councils have to do to fulfil the Government's requirements? First, there is the 21-day consultation process. I shall revert to that shortly, but 21 days is not a long time for a parish council to convene a meeting to take the appropriate soundings from people in the community and to respond in due course. Parish councils often have less than 21 days, because they are not statutory consultees but are statutorily notified. Some may view that as patronising.
Secondly, there is a lack of access to planners. They have enormous work loads and cannot provide the same care and consultation as formerly for parish councils, applicants or anybody else. A common complaint is that people no longer have the same access to professional planning advice that they once had.
It would be helpful if the Minister for Local Government would clarify the point in his reply,
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but I understand that a parish council is not a statutory consultee. Its role is even more subordinate than that. There is no requirement on the local authority to consult the parish council; it is consulted merely out of courtesy.
Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend is right and I believe that I said that. Parish councils are not consultees in development control applications. I believe that they are statutory consultees on what is now called the local development framework, which I knew as the local plan. They must be notified, but no more, about development applications. They are not consultees in the same way as some others are.
The scheme of delegation is another difficult matter. We all accept that, if we are to have an efficient planning system, not every application has to go before a full council committee. That does not make sense. However, in councils throughout the country, officers take more than 90 per cent. of the decisions. Applications do not get near elected members in committee, but are simply tackled by an officer, who may or may not be properly familiar with the concerns and needs of the local village.
My hon. Friend's comments underline the fact that consultation nowadays is almost perceived as a threat rather than an opportunity for councils and, sometimes, the Government. The Government often say that they are looking for ways in which to engage and involve people in political processes, including the planning process. Yet one method has been under their noses for some time. The parish councils, along with an expanded statutory right to consultation, could provide an excellent way to engage more people. Before I became a Member of Parliament, I served as a parish councillor at one point in my career. I was close to my electorate and was engaged in local decision making on their behalf. We could even consider extending that principle to urban areas that are unparished. If we abandoned the word "parish" in such instances, more community or neighbourhood councils could have a similar statutory right to consultation.
Mr. Heath: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. When the Minister replies, he may well say that that is part of the Government's thinking, but I am not convinced that it is working and believe that there are serious difficulties.
We have touched on the code of conduct, which is an obstacle to common sense. Parish and district councillors may be unable to vote on planning issues. For example, people who wear different hats in the council may be barred from considering such issues. Of course, we need probity in local government, but common sense is required to enable the people who know the local community best to express an opinion on its behalf when they are elected to represent it, but sometimes there are difficulties in allowing them to do so.
There is a serious shortage of planners. It has become difficult to recruit planners in many district council planning offices, which has had knock-on effects on decision making and the quality of decisions. I recently
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received a deputation of architects, who were concerned about being given different advice on different occasions. Their clients regard that as a reflection on their professional competence when, in fact, the planners gave them different advice on the same issue. Very often, grounds for refusal are tightly drawn. Parish councils are sometimes criticised for failing to understand what are, and what are not, valid grounds for refusal. If that is the case, better training should be provided for parish councils so that they do understand the difference, but we also need to be flexible about appropriate grounds. If a village has taken a great deal of trouble to determine what it wants for its future, and that has been agreed by all the residents, something that does not fit with its vision should be considered an important ground for refusal. Such considerations can are often ignored if they do not fall within narrow criteria.
What can we do to improve the situation? We can improve the time scale for consultation and undertake genuine consultation with parish councils to reflect the fact that small rural parish councils are not local authorities that meet every week and employ staff to prepare their response to applications. We could do an awful lot more by developing IT links between parish councils and their local district councils so that they have a clear idea about the progress of a particular planning application and are given more opportunities to make observations on it during the process. I mentioned better training and it is appropriate to ensure that parish councillors have all the tools at their disposal to help them to make the right decisions. We need to address staffing issues in planning and, most of all, we must address the attitude of principal authorities, particularly district councils, so that they accept that parish councils have an important role to play as colleagues. Parish councils are partners in the planning process, not an irritation that gets in the way of quick decision making. It would be helpful if parish councils were treated as statutory consultees rather than as parties to be notified.
There have been more extensive experiments. In Taunton Deane, for instance, there was a scheme of delegation to parish councils on minor planning decisions. Does the Minister have in mind something similar where there is an appropriate scheme of delegation? The responsibility remains with the principal authority, which is the certifying authority but, nevertheless, in the case of minor issues, which are often delegated to a junior officer, it would be better for a parish council, with its knowledge of what is right for the area, to play a role.
This is an important point, which might get to the nub of the issue. I apologise if my hon. Friend thinks that I am being tiresome, but it is important to develop the issue further. I am not sure that he is being ambitious enough for parish councils. On delegation, there has been an experiment in Taunton Deane and other parts of the country. Does he accept that, because of their proximity to the environment concerned, parish councils are in an excellent position to monitor what is going on from the enforcement point of view? In addition, with regard to smaller extensions or window and other minor changes, particularly in conservation areas, they are in a strong position to assist
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the planning process, given the professional assistance of the nearest local planning authority, because they have that local expertise. Surely they need to be given devolved powers to help to make those decisions.
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