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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): As my hon. Friend said, I was a parish councillor from 1987 to 2003. He is waxing lyrical about the strengths of unitary authorities as replacements for the   shire and district two-tier arrangement. Does he accept, however, that one of the weaknesses associated with that can be that there are unparished urban areas within district and borough council areas? Would not they be even worse off under a unitary arrangement when just rural parts of the area would be parished, while the urban parts would have no such local representation?

Mr. Drew: I agree entirely and hope that if the review is genuine and open-minded, and if we sort out the layers of local government, we will parish parts of urban Britain that wish it. I do not believe it should be imposed. It should be done through the will of the community, but there are ways in which that can be demonstrated and value shown.

My desire is for a straightforward move towards unitary government, which could be done and could be made popular. It could then begin to link better with health provision and other elements, including the police, which is a controversial area. We certainly need
 
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greater cohesion in the decision-making process, and I   shall say no more on that score. I feel strongly that there is a need for much greater thought on how structural changes are made, including in local government.

I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about the roles of training and of the parish councillor and the clerk. The clerks, remember, have legal authority to ensure that they advise parish and town councillors correctly, which is vital.

Let me give one final plug to the university of Gloucestershire, which has done a lot of work in this area across the country. It started locally in offering advice on village appraisals and town plans, but it goes wider than that now in running courses across the country. I have spoken on those courses on many occasions because I happen to be local. That is the way forward—to build expertise and get people to stand for election without feeling vulnerable or as though their time is being wasted. That will lead to a better planning process. In the end, we all want a planning process that is fair, transparent and works as quickly as possible so that people get a decision. In some cases that will be a refusal, because the planning process should not be a   pushover. There should not be a presumption in favour of approval. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, precedent is often disastrous. If the first window is put in wrongly, all the subsequent windows will be put in wrongly. I have had some dreadful cases locally where that has resulted in people being threatened with enforcement.

I hope that the issue will be taken seriously. We have had a longer debate on it than we anticipated, and the hon. Gentleman deserves congratulations on raising it. As my friend Stephen Wright, from the Gloucester rural community council reminds us, the parish system is not the lowest level of government, but the first. Long may it continue and long may we have the planning process we deserve through appropriate investment in that level of government.

5.51 pm

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on securing the debate and I am grateful to him for his offer to take up some of the remaining time available. I also appreciate the indulgence of the Minister. It gives me the opportunity to complete the set of the four levels of local government that I have raised with him. I have mentioned regional assemblies, Northamptonshire county council, Daventry district council and Kettering borough council on previous occasions and tonight is a wonderful opportunity to raise the first level—as the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr.   Drew) rightly reminded us—with the Minister.

In my limited experience of this House, it appears that when residents of parishes wish to raise planning issues, they go to either their parish council or their Member of Parliament, ignoring the various levels of councils in between. I have the privilege of being a borough councillor in Kettering and of chairing the Kettering borough rural forum, which involved the quarterly meeting of all 22 parish councils in the borough. Our next meeting is on 16 February. It is an honour for me to chair the forum and I am keen to continue to do so,
 
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because it keeps me closely in touch with the issues of most importance to parish councillors. Planning is, of   course, one of those issues, along with policing and the other rural issues with which we are all familiar.

The role of parish councils in the planning process is far from perfect, but having a parish council does give local residents a far greater say in some of the important planning issues that affect their area. An example is that of Barton Seagrave in Kettering borough which, until a few years ago, was not a parished area and had no parish council. A campaign was started to parish Barton Seagrave and, after a long process involving the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, permission was eventually granted and Barton Seagrave had its parish council. I am delighted to say that the Conservatives have a majority on it.

Recently, a major planning application was made by the supermarket firm Morrisons to build one of its largest warehouses in the country on the border between Barton Seagrave parish council and Burton Latimer parish council. The Morrisons development was a good thing for Burton Latimer parish council, as it brought jobs and enterprise to the area. However, it threatened to cause all sorts of problems for the residents of Barton Seagrave, not least the possibility of heavy traffic flows along residential streets, particularly Polwell lane. The parish council, especially Mr. and Mrs. Arthur and Margaret Mitchelson, put in a tremendous amount of work representing the concerns of local residents about the planning application. About 1,500 letters of objection flooded into Kettering borough council, such was the outrage locally, but it was effectively channelled by the parish council and other local protest groups into extremely constructive local meetings, one of which I   attended at Latimer arts college in Barton Seagrave, where about 800 local residents heard a briefing on the planning application from borough council planning officers and others.

Without Barton Seagrave parish council, that effective community involvement would not have happened. I am extremely pleased that Barton Seagrave has its parish council and was able to change a major planning application in several serious respects. Congratulations must go to all the parish councillors and other residents involved.

David Taylor: Borough councillors in Kettering and elsewhere who are listening to the debate might suggest that the meetings led by parish councillors that the hon. Gentleman described could in fact have been triggered by the borough councillors for the area, as presumably there are some. However, does he agree that one of the problems with borough councillors getting involved in community representation is that they may disqualify themselves from the planning process at borough level and thus from representing the concerns of the people they were elected to serve? That tension should be addressed.

Mr. Hollobone: Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, the hon. Gentleman makes an extremely effective point. In the Morrisons case, one of the two borough councillors for the area was disqualified under the code of conduct from making any comment as a relative had some work connection with the applicant, while the other felt unable to comment because he sat on
 
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the relevant planning committee. A major democratic deficit is created when major planning applications affect local communities, but in that case the parish council was able to meet it most effectively.

Just down the road from Barton Seagrave is the village of Cranford, in the Buccleuch ward of the borough of Kettering, which I have the privilege to represent. The ward also includes the villages of Grafton Underwood, Warkton, Weekley and Rushton. Cranford and its residents face a serious threat from planning due to the ODPM's Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional spatial strategy, which proposes for Kettering borough the construction of 13,100 houses by 2021. That will increase the number of houses in the borough by about a third in the next 15 years. That is a very serious issue for everyone who lives in the locality, but it is particularly serious for the good residents of Cranford and for Cranford parish council, because it is likely that a very large proportion of those 13,100 houses will be built in Cranford parish, effectively between the built-up area of Kettering and Cranford. Cranford parish council is, sadly, like a minnow in a sea of sharks, given such a major development issue.

I am pleased to report that a former hon. Member for Wellingborough, Sir Peter Fry, serves on that parish council. He and his colleagues are doing all that they can to ensure that local views will be represented when the development plans eventually are made official and presented as a planning application to the borough council—of course, I will do my best as well—but the voice of any parish council on any issue that involves a directive ultimately from central Government is likely to be extremely limited.

With a major application, such as the supermarket warehouse development that I have spoken about, the voice of a parish council can be effective in co-ordinating local concerns—I am sure that Cranford parish council will do exactly the same—but there is simply no way in which it will be able to stop the development happening in Kettering. At best, the parish council can seek to modify the plans and to ensure that the houses do not absorb Cranford into the whole development and keep it at a distance.

I am grateful to the House for the opportunity to speak in the debate, because all hon. Members owe a huge debt of gratitude to parish councillors, who give of their time for free and who often meet in cold and draughty village halls, often in remote locations. As the hon. Member for Stroud said, for many residents they are the first layer of government. I hope that the Minister, in addressing the concerns that have been raised in the debate and in any measure that he introduces, will seek to enhance the role of parish councillors, not diminish it.

6.1 pm


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