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Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I   applaud particularly what he said about enforcement, as it is often the parish council, rather than district council planners, that knows that something is not being done according to planning permission, and it should at least be able to instigate an appropriate remedy. On determining more decisions, the one drawback—I agree strongly with him about the need to devolve as far as possible—is that it would not be appropriate if the parish council could take the decision without any recourse to the district council while the district council maintained the risk in terms of cost on appeal or whatever. In the Taunton Deane experiment, there was   only one appeal, and that was successfully resisted. That was evidence that parish councils take such responsibilities extremely seriously. A balance must be struck.

My last major point, on which I started with observations from Cranmore parish council, relates to village plans, which are an extraordinarily effective tool in many ways. For a start, they are wonderful at developing the coherence and good neighbourliness of the village. The village comes together as the parish council undertakes a genuinely consultative procedure to get people's views about the future of their village, what they wish to see and what they regard as the difficulties or deficiencies, in order to create a structure for the village's future. Time and again in villages in my constituency, I have seen the holistic value of that process, which allows people to have a real say in their future.

The Government promoted that process in the White Paper "Our Countryside", which stated:

That was backed up by planning policy statement 1, "Delivering Sustainable Development", which supports the role of parish plans in encouraging town and parish councils to develop full and active community involvement in their areas, and PPS 12, "Creating Local Development Frameworks", which urges local authorities to

[Interruption.] It appears that I am reading out part of the Minister's speech in advance, which I am happy to do—so far so good.

I am therefore concerned that the document, "Community Involvement in Planning: The Government's Objectives", published in 2004, contains no recognition of the role of parish plans whatever. There is evidence that in a large number of cases councils have not adopted well-founded village plans as supplementary planning guidance. Extensive research published by the Countryside Agency saw the merits of
 
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village plans as a tool for seeking project funding, influencing changes, strengthening the democratic mandate and providing impetus for local community action, but did not find that they had an effective role in influencing planning decisions by the district council. Most planning departments that were consulted considered it unrealistic to expect parish plans to fit into the development planning system.

That is a serious issue. Parishes in my area are frustrated. Many villages that went to much trouble to produce glossy documents such as the Somerton town plan, which I have here—there are also plans for Norton St. Philip and Henstridge—are ignored far too often when it comes to development control planning.

A note from the chairman of Leigh-on-Mendip parish council says:

That suggests that a hugely time-consuming and relatively expensive process—I read in Local Council Review a week ago that the Government were providing another £1 million to support the development of village plans—that is of enormous value does not affect planning decisions even if it is accepted as planning guidance. No wonder parish councillors, parish councils and the communities that they serve feel frustrated.

If the Government contend that parish plans are a significant part of the planning process, as I think they should be, and if such plans represent the will of the local community, which they clearly do, surely they should have a much clearer status in the decisions made by planning officers and district planning committees, so that they are given effect. Does the Minister agree with that? If so, what will he do to change what appears to be the current position?

Until the village plan is recognised by the planning inspector as a material consideration, district councils will not take notice of it. As long as we maintain an adversarial system of planning in which the views of the parish council are seen as being simply the views of one contestant in a competition, they will have no effect. If they are seen as the genuine voice of the community, deriving from a partnership between the planning authority and the local community, they will have a real effect.

Let me end with a communication from another parish councillor in my constituency, from the village of Hemington. The first sentence states:

That is the view of many parish councillors. I do not think that my constituency is unique in that respect. The same situation prevails up and down the country. I hope that the Minister will say not only that he values the role of parish councils and wants them to extend it in a number of ways of which planning is but one example, but that he will take steps to ensure that the village plan over which people take so much time and trouble plays a real part in the planning process.

5.34 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on choosing this subject for debate, and I praise him for
 
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choosing a night to debate it on which the business of the House has collapsed. That has given us the longest opportunity that we will probably ever have to discuss parish and town councils. [Interruption.] I note that the Whip is grimacing, so I shall be brief and stay on the subject—the planning process—except for one slight diversion into discussing the local government review and what I hope will be an early and easy move toward unitary authorities in parts of the country such as mine. We struggle with three-tier local government, which helps nobody.

I should at this point declare an interest. In 1987, I   was elected as a parish councillor in my Stonehouse community, which became a town about three years   later. I am still a town councillor, and for that entire 18-year period I have been on the planning and transportation committee, so I have some expertise in these areas. I shall not bore the House with the details of the meetings that I have attended, but I thoroughly enjoy them and I have yet to be kicked off, or fail to be elected to, that very important body.

There are a number of other representative bodies that the hon. Gentleman did not touch on, but which are also important in their own right, such as rural community councils and the National Association of Local Councils. Through the work of people such as John Findlay and Michael Green, the NALC represents local councils at national level. I should also like to mention the University of Gloucestershire, which has done a great deal to help to support parish and town councils.

I welcome the fact that local councils—parish or town councils—can still make planning representations. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, they take two forms: reaction to planning applications, and a more strategic interpretation of the way in which local councils can influence the planning process, which, as he says, is becoming part of the local development framework. When this Government were first elected, the official Opposition said that it was part of the Government's plan to remove parish councils, but it is the Government who have fostered a relationship with parish councils, funded the planning process to make it more effective, and made local democracy, to which they have a longstanding commitment, genuinely work, for reasons that I hope to explain.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the planning application process gives rise to frustration; it would be nice to be listened to by councils further up the line. The problem lies not just with immediate planning applications; there is also the question of minerals policy and waste policy, for example, which currently reside with county councils. It is important that such policies be taken into account, because they have a dramatic impact. In my constituency, waste is a huge issue, and in that regard it is particularly important to find ways of vesting more responsibility at local level.

The delegation of certain applications to officers is an   issue, and one that we are not necessarily getting right. That said, I realise that there has to be streamlining. Some applications need to be dealt with quickly for all sorts of reasons; others require no real debate because they are straightforward. However, in the days when the   Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions was responsible for such things, the Government considered delegating all
 
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planning applications to parish councils. That was not followed through, as some matters can be very sensitive—after all, turning down applications can cause reverberations when one meets the people who made them in the street or pub. That can be difficult, but I   support greater delegation and believe that the DETR was on to something. Those were also the days of the rural White Paper, through which the Government extended local democracy, and made funding available for it.

Permitted development rights need to be looked at again, as they have become a bone of contention for district and unitary councils as well as parish councils. Telecommunications masts pose the greatest problem, but listed buildings also cause controversy. The planning application process should take account of parish and town councils, which deserve a statutory role even if their recommendations are not always accepted.

Stroud district council is the parent body for the various parish councils in my constituency. In one of its less sane moments, it tried to remove parish councils from site inspections, even though the fact that council members know what is going on in their area allows them to speak with authority and thus perform a valuable role. A compromise was mooted that would have allowed them to turn up but say nothing—an interesting interpretation of local democracy—but in the end the district council changed its mind. As a result, I am pleased to say that parish and town councils retain a role in site inspections.

This Government have given money and support to the evolution of village and town appraisals and plans. In a clever move, that responsibility was deliberately given to the community represented by parish and town councils, rather than to the councils themselves. That meant that the whole of a community got involved, and not just council members.

I have read almost all the village appraisals in my constituency, and inspected the plans that have been produced. It has been good to see how local communities have engaged with the process. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is making money available to encourage communities that do not yet have a plan to put one together.

It is vital that the supplementary guidance for the   local development framework, when it replaces the present local plan, continues that provision. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, if the framework is to have teeth, it must have some statutory authority. Its recommendations must lead to real actions rather then just warm words. I welcome the new framework, which is another development that originated with rural community councils and the National Association of Local Councils.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make a positive response to the debate. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) has come into the Chamber. Until recently, he was also a parish councillor and, although I   think that he is one no longer, it is still good to see him wave the flag for parish councils in this place.

I want to make two more points. The first is about the relationship to other planning bodies. We have something of a conflict at the moment between one of my parish councils, Frampton on Severn, and the
 
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Environment Agency about planned flood relief. Parish councils should be listened to in those areas as well as through the formal democratic process. The Environment Agency can have an enormous impact when it is, or is not, going to do flood relief work in communities.

By pure chance, there was an announcement today, I   think, about the all-party local government group. I suppose we are allowed to mention all-party groups. I   still see them as valuable, even if The Times has pointed the finger and said that they should be opened up. Under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), the group announced it will look into relationships between local councils and district and county councils, where they exist, and those with central Government. I hope that that will be pursued and be seen as a useful development.

My final point is about unitary councils. I, for one, support them, and I am not just saying that now because the Government seem to be moving in that direction. I   have always argued the case for unitary authorities with a clear relationship with parish and town councils. One of the banes of the life of a parish councillor is the fact that they have to deal with two larger authorities, one somewhat more divorced by distance than the other. The games played between those layers of local government mean the parish councillor often finds himself pushed between pillar and post. That is as true of the planning process as it is of many other parts of local democracy. I should welcome any drive towards sorting that out.

The public want to know who are the decision-making authorities. They want to know exactly that those who speak with authority can deliver. It causes me nothing but grief—perhaps an incorrect parliamentary expression—to find one authority dumping on the other.


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