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Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD):
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on securing the debate and on making a strong and powerful case for improving, increasing and clarifying in some cases the role of parish councils in respect of planning. Wider than that, planning matters clearly affect many other decisions and issues about which parish councils are rightly concerned on behalf of their local communities.
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The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who is no longer in his place, also made a very strong contribution, by emphasising both his own experience and his passionate interest in the subject. Similarly, the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) emphasised the importance of parishing those parts of the country that are not yet parished. Of course, with that comes the twin-pronged problem of parishing an area and then having to admit to the councils in that area that they have no powers and the fact that the councillors who end up serving on those councils and on higher-tier authorities are compromised as a result of becoming engaged in any of the more important issues that the parish councils consider, as was exposed in an intervention by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor).
The issue that we are debating has not suddenly sprung up in recent years: an honourable tradition goes back before William Godwin, Kropotkin, Cobbett and, more latterly, Schumacher, all of whom emphasised the importance of giving communities a genuine say in the conduct of their affairs. In fact, that honourable tradition is exemplified by the way in which parish councils operate when they are at their best and by the way in which we as politicians want communities to have a genuine influence on the conduct of their affairs in taking that issue further forward.
The hon. Member for Stroud has now returned to the Chamber. He referred to Stephen Wright, the director of Gloucestershire rural community council and a good friend of mine. I think that Stephen Wright stole the words to which the hon. Gentleman referred from me. Seven years ago, I spoke at what was then called the Association of Rural Community Councils and said that parish councils were the highest tier of government because they were closest to the people, and thus in a better position to reflect people's interests. I am sure that I nicked the idea from someone elseprobably Stephen Wrightbut we can argue about that.
At their worst, parish councils are open forums for settling local scores and pursuing narrow parochial interests and do not help the greater good of the local community. However, when they operate at their best, as they do on most occasions throughout my constituencythis can be said of local authorities of different levelsthey represent the best interests of their communities extremely well. Such councils are in the best position to take decisions.
The Government have to make important decisions both on the unfinished business of devolution and on the related matter of the role of parish councils. If the Government genuinely think that devolution is a process of letting go instead of holding on for dear life and realise that it is appropriate to devolve a number of powers further down the authority spectrum, they must recognise that they can negotiate a business case for parish councils taking on a range of decision-making responsibilities.
Such responsibilities might include planning. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome cited the example of Taunton Deane, as well as the situation in other districts and boroughs. That demonstrates that parish councils are in a good position to monitor situationsdistrict councils are incapable of doing that.
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They would be in an especially good position to monitor the enforcement of conservation measures and whether all properties in a parish had appropriate planning permission before work was carried out on extensions, for example. Planning law is flouted to a great extent, so parish councils could take on the responsibility for addressing the problem from higher-tier authorities.
I take on board my hon. Friend's point about risk. Parish councils could be at legal and financial risk if they took decisions on matters that another authority might delegate to them. It would be possible to make a business case for establishing a system through which parish councils would fully understand their legal and financial responsibilities when taking decisions. If the district council engaged in the process, it could supply parish councils with any appropriate professional assistance and expertise that was required. It is not beyond the wit of man or woman to create a system of delegation that would work. Parish councils are in a much stronger position than other authorities to discharge duties on a whole load of matters, including planning, environmental matters and waste management.
David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman would have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew)or for Stroud and Stonehouse, as I am tempted to rename the seatrefer to the important role of parish clerks, which will be especially important if powers are expanded and a more formal relationship is required. It is not unknown in parts of Leicestershire for parish councillors to resent and resist the greater formality on which clerks rightly insist, so tensions can grow, sometimes to the point of fracture. Has the hon. Gentleman encountered that situation in Cornwall?
Andrew George: There are occasions when what the hon. Gentleman says is true. I shall come on in my final remarks to circumstances in which it is possible for formal structures to operate at a very local level. I shall refer to a part of my constituency that is not in Cornwall.
I know that local planning issues, in particular, can be tremendously highly charged. No one should go into planning, particularly at officer level, if they have a persecution complex because they will be attacked from both sides on all occasions. The same is true of those on planning committees. I feel very strongly about planning matters, and at every general election, when I am asked whether I believe that capital punishment should be reintroduced, I say, "Absolutely not, except on two occasions: when people put plastic windows into old buildings and when people fail to pick up after their dog."
Joking asice, and turning to circumstances in which it is appropriate to take decisions locally, I have a good example in my constituency, on the Isles of Scilly. The population is 2,000, considerably smaller than that of many parishes, but the council has more powers than a county, district and parish council rolled into oneit is also the water authority and the airport authority. There are many lessons to be learned from the Isles of Scilly, and if the Government are thinking seriously, as I hope they are, about devolving powers to parish level, they should look at that exemplar. On the Isles of Scilly, all planning decisions, as far as the Government and the
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new, nonsensical regional assembly allow, are taken at island level, and as a result there are very few occasions on which local people end up gunning each other down in the high street. Planning matters are still highly charged, but the council uses professional planning advice, which often comes from the mainland. It is wise not to have all local authority officers living in the community in question.
I hope that the Minister takes that on board when he reflects on what he has heard today and on whether he can influence his Department's policy and look again at the possibility of devolving power to parish councils.
The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): Life is full of ironies, one of which is that this extended debate has prevented me from attending a meeting in the Department to discuss neighbourhood empowerment, but I think that I have learned a lot in the debate. I am genuinely grateful for that and congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on securing the debate. I do not suppose that he imagined, when he submitted his letter to Mr. Speaker last week, that he would be given such an extensive debate. It has been a good debate, and I want to try to take on board and answer the points that have been made.
I hope that it is accepted that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Government generally, greatly appreciate the efforts that parish councils, and the individuals within the parishes, make to ensure that planning applications are decided in an informed way. I should add that we are also grateful for the valuable work that is done outside the planning remit. Of course, a parish council is not a local planning authority. Nevertheless, along with policies in the local planning authority's local development documents, and any relevant national guidance, the input from parish councils on individual planning applications continues to help planning decision makers to shape our communities and the built environment in a sustainable way. That is the goal of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and it is taken very seriously.
The Government have an agenda of neighbourhood empowerment, neighbourhood service delivery, neighbourhood governance and what we describe as the double devolution deal, wherein, as we introduce our policies to devolve powers to local areas, we expect upper and second-tier authorities similarly to devolve powers and services further down. That agenda is at the heart of the Government's policy, as will be seen when we publish our White Paper in the summer. It can also be seen in the White Papers and policy documents that we have published.
I have meetings with the representatives of the National Association of Local Councils, who do invaluable work. I suspect that this debate will be read in Hansard by many people who are active in the parishesmore, perhaps, than some other debates that get the attention of the national media. So I am choosing my words carefully and deliberately; this is an important area of policy.
I want to try to answer some of the specific points that hon. Members have raised. The hon. Members for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) and for
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Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) mentioned the code of conduct. The House should know that the revisions to the code of conduct and the standards and ethical regime are out for consultation at the moment. My own view is that the worries that were expressed when the code was first introduced in relation to parishes have not been realised, and that things have become steadier. There is an acceptance that we need an ethical code of conduct for parish councillors, but I accept that, if petty matters are getting in the way and causing undue concern, we should be made aware of that.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made a number of big points and asked several specific questions. I shall try to answer them, but if I do not do so, I am sure that he will tell me. His argument about marginal seats was interesting, and it is one with which I am familiar. I can confirm that turnout can be increased in such seats. However, it does not necessary follow that parish council seats will be marginal. I work closely with two parishes in my constituency, and I hope that they benefit from that relationship as much as I do. Furthermore, I am not sure that planning authorities on the whole ignore parish councils. From my experience, I suspect that the two bodies concur on the vast majority of decisions, although attention is inevitably paid to those cases in which there is a disagreement. I do not have any research on that point, however, so I cannot back that assertion up.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, and other hon. Members, also mentioned the quality and training of parish councillors and parish clerks. The Government are addressing that issue with funding, as well as with policies. Several hon. Members mentioned the future debate on unitary authorities. We have made our views on that process very clear. I want to reassure all hon. Members who have spoken tonight that two factors will be at the core of the debate about whether an area should be unitary. One is that we ask the opinion of the area concerned. The second is that we ensure that the empowerment of the third tierthe neighbourhoods, including parishes or other parts of urban areasis key to the policy. I take the advice not to tinker with traditional boundaries. I represent Saddleworth, so I am aware, although perhaps less so than the hon. Gentleman, of that important point.
The hon. Gentleman also said that it was difficult to recruit planners. The Government have recognised that through their policy and their actions. We are contributing £1.32 million annually for 132 postgraduate bursaries to get more planners into the system. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that there is a time lag, but he makes a valid point. We believe that we have turned round the shortfall in numbers and that not only will more planners come through, but their status and quality will improve as a result of the training. That is not a criticism of existing planning officers, in case any of them read Hansard.
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