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Mr. Drew: Planning officers in rural areas need to be both proactive and sensitive, which we hope are not mutually exclusive. There are arguments over matters which sound prosaic to people in urban areas—disused barns, for example. Often communities want to reuse those facilities for some form of enterprise or sometimes for housing, even affordable housing, but they are
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ignored. That is one of the frustrations of the planning system. I hope that the Government will encourage the new planning officers to take account of such views.

Mr. Woolas: My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is increasingly recognised that planners are under pressure not just to be professional, but to be communicators.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome highlighted the opportunities that e-government and electronic communications offer to upper-tier authorities, whether district or county, to embed the parish councils as partners in service delivery and in consultation and information. Those opportunities are significant. Duplication would be avoided, and the public often do not know which level services are delivered from.

The hon. Gentleman's point about the attitude to parish councils is important. They should be embraced and their views taken seriously. Of course there are good and bad parish councils, and sometimes very parochial issues are raised, but that is outweighed by neighbourhood empowerment and the ability to achieve a sustainable community. People have the right to expect that their views will be taken into consideration and listened to. The alienation of the public from politics and policy decisions could be helped by strong and effective parish councils.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) obviously speaks with great knowledge about these matters. He wants unitary authorities. He emphasised the point about the third tier and I agree. I am grateful to him for praising the Government and pointing out to the House that we have funded parish councils and created the quality parish council scheme, which has devolved power. We want to see more of that and an acknowledgment that money has gone into the development of the village plans. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that to the attention of the House, and for his point about the university of Gloucestershire, which I was not aware of. I shall look further into it, as it is important.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who is also very knowledgeable about these matters, spoke about the problem of part-parished areas. That is an important part of our White Paper debate and how we move forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud said that we should not impose parishes on areas that did not want them, but the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire is being taken into consideration in the White Paper.

The hon. Member for Kettering is right—he has raised matters about all four levels of government. As far as I know, I am not due to attend a debate about the European Union in the near future, but perhaps he wants to complete his quintet with that. I congratulate him on the points that he made. I am jealous that he can chair a forum made up of 22 parishes, which must be a useful tool in representing his constituency. He raised the case of Barton Seagrave and Burton Latimer and mentioned the campaign of Mr. and Mrs. Mitchelson, and I acknowledge his point about the position of the parish in big planning applications. In such situations,
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the onus is on authorities and Governments to listen more to the views of parishes than they would otherwise do.

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) acknowledged that there are good and bad parish councils. The detractors of parishes sometimes pick up on petty and parochial points, which is not a rational way to view parishes, and we must take into account that the vast majority of activity is good. He also raised an interesting point, which I shall take away, that a parish should be a planning authority. He also suggested that the parish has a role in enforcing planning decisions and planning law, which is a powerful point. He wants other powers for parishes and cited the example of the Isles of Scilly, which are in my mind at the moment because they are recipients of the formula grant in the local government settlement—they will receive £67,375. Funding is an important issue in moving more powers downwards, although I know that that is not the end of the argument.

Turning to the policy questions, in addition to the statutory time limits of eight and 13 weeks for determining minor and major planning applications respectively, the Government have set performance targets for district and borough councils to encourage efficiency in their planning sector. We believe that timeliness in delivering planning decisions is an important part of a quality planning service, that applicants have a right to expect a measure of certainty in the handling of their development proposals and that quality should not be sacrificed to speed or quantity.

As part of the best value regime, local planning authorities have the targets of dealing with 60 per cent. of major applications within 13 weeks, 65 per cent. of minor applications within eight weeks and 80 per cent. of other applications within eight weeks. Comparative results of local authority performance across England are published on the internet in the form of a checklist. As we shall see, however, there is no longer a performance target for the delegation of decisions to planning officers, which has been restricted as part of our general policy. We take the accusation that targets have perverse effects seriously.

Let me say a little more about decision making and the planning system in general. Prompt decision making with no loss of quality is only one element of the planning services we want local authorities to provide. Communities deserve openness and transparency of process and of decision making. The latter must go further than simple compliance with the consultation arrangements laid down in the law. Improving the planning system is also predicated on increased public participation in the process, whether by individuals, by groups or by bodies such as the parish council.

One of the main aims of our recent planning reforms has been to increase the involvement of local people in the planning decisions that affect their lives. Local planning authorities are now required to publish a statement of community involvement, setting out how local people and organisations will be not only engaged in the preparation and revision of local development documents, but consulted on the more significant planning applications. There is also independent examination of the statement of community involvement. A local planning authority must comply with its statement.
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We brought in this procedure to help to ensure that district and borough councils feel obliged to make greater and more effective efforts to engage the local community directly and to exploit the knowledge of their area which local people and, as all hon. Members have said, their parish councils can proffer to assist the planning system.

Mr. Hollobone: Will the Minister look again at the application of the planning fees process? In an area such as Kettering, there is, in effect, a cap on the planning fees paid to local authorities by applicants. Four thousand houses are to be built between Kettering and Cranford. The maximum fee that the borough council can charge is £50,000, which will go nowhere near to covering the costs involved in processing the applications.

Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, to which further weight is added by the fact that there are inconsistencies between councils.

The performance targets that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister sets for the handling of planning applications have no bearing on the legal requirement that local planning authorities consult parishes and await their representations. Local planning authorities reach their decisions on planning applications in accordance with their local development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise. They should give due weight to any other relevant factors. In a particular case, the view expressed by the parish council could be one such factor. The law says that a local planning authority is not allowed to determine an application within 21 days of notifying a parish council. In other words, once it has notified the parish council, it has to allow at least 21 days before it can determine an application so as to allow it time to comment on those applications that it has asked to be told about.

Let me deal with the question of the law and parish councils. A parish council indicates to a local planning authority which type or category of applications it wishes to be notified about. It is then a statutory duty on the planning authority to notify the parish and wait 21 days for any representations by it. The Government are convinced of the value of involving parish councils in this way by inviting their comments on any relevant planning application. A parish council's representations are not binding on the local planning authority. That would, in effect, pass the responsibility for determining planning applications to parish councils in all cases in which they were consulted. In the first instance, the decision maker remains the district or borough council or unitary authority.

Those authorities have to act in what they deem to be the broader public interest, as well as having regard to planning law, when determining an application. The broader public interest may involve education and other important services. The hon. Members for Somerton and Frome and for St. Ives argued for a devolution of those broader public interest powers to a parish level. The Government question whether that is appropriate, but in doing so we encourage, through policy and the levers that are available, greater consultation with parishes.
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Furthermore, the planning authority is obliged to act within the law. All of us, as Members of Parliament, have found in our constituencies that the semi-judicial nature of planning committees can often cause frustration to the public.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire, who is no longer here, made the point that devolution of planning powers to parish council level would involve more parish councils in conflicts of interest, or perceived conflicts of interest, which could not only exclude them in some instances, thereby not fulfilling the objective that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome outlined, but further discredit the planning process. It is a question of balance.

From time to time, a parish council's comments on a specific scheme may conflict with other considerations and it is for the local planning authority to decide which of the conflicting views should prevail. In the broad framework of the law, local planning authorities devise their own detailed arrangements for handling responses to consultation. It would be unnecessarily prescriptive to set out in legislation the subject matter and form of consultations between local planning authorities and parish councils. Instead, consultation procedures are established on the basis of voluntary agreements, which are better able to reflect the circumstances of the relevant local councils. When disputes arise, they can and should be resolved locally.

I suppose I point to the obvious paradox that, in attempting to get local authorities to devolve to local people, if the Government insist on how that should be   done, the policy can hardly be described as decentralised. Nevertheless, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister regards the delegation of suitable decisions to officers as an effective way sometimes of improving timeliness of decision making, which is why the Department encourages all local authorities to adopt a comprehensive system of delegation.

Decisions can be delegated to officers only by the elected members, so it is the latter who determine, for example, the terms on which a delegated agreement operates, the level of member involvement and the circumstances in which an officer's delegated power to make a decision may not be exercised.

We now come to the crux of the matter. The Local Government Association and the ODPM have jointly published guidance on schemes of delegation, called "Delivering Delegation." Apart from reaffirming policy on delegation, that looks at the types of decision that can be delegated. There are best practice models of delegation schemes and that guidance has been agreed with local government representatives.

There used to be a performance target of 90 per cent. on the extent of delegation. However, as a target, that figure was abolished with effect from 1 April 2004. In South Somerset, I understand that arrangements made by one local authority in particular have given rise to concern by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome.

South Somerset district council is known to be seeking to improve its performance in development control. That includes the efficiency of handling individual applications. Consultants from the ODPM have completed an evaluation of the authority's current performance and are due to visit the planning service there in the next few months.
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A scheme of delegation for development control in South Somerset was established in 1995. With encouragement and support from ODPM, the Planning Advisory Service and the Government office for the south-west, South Somerset district council introduced various measures to speed up performance and improve the overall quality of decision making. That included reviewing the delegation scheme and the existing arrangements for consultation with parish councils.

Last year, the council introduced a "by exception" scheme of delegation. Many local planning authorities have operated voluntarily a procedure whereby a significant disagreement between planning staff and the incoming opinions of a parish council would cause the matter to be sent to committee for determination, even if the case is of a type or scale that would normally be delegated to a planning officer for decision. By contrast, the "by exception" principle means that all applications are delegated unless specific criteria are met.

The effect of the model is that it removes the hitherto automatic referral of planning applications for consideration by the planning committee where a parish council's comments differ from the view put forward by the council's planning department. Concerns have been raised that that is, in effect, a reduction in the role and status of parish councils in influencing the decision-making process.

Although the "by exception" model may have aroused the fear of a loss of influence at parish level, I   should emphasise that the model is very much in line with the approach that is endorsed by the LGA/ODPM guidance, which I have already mentioned. In 2004, 85 per cent. of applications in South Somerset district council were dealt with under delegated powers. The council considered that that needed to be increased to 90 per cent. but, as I have said, there is no such performance target from us.

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