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Mr. Heath: It is important to say for the record that I have received more complaints from parish councils about the planning system in Mendip district council than in South Somerset district council.

Mr. Woolas: I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to say that. I am trying to be helpful, and explain the process. I will try to be brief, as I appreciate that I   have more time than usual.

Applications can now be published immediately on an authority's website, which means that we can consult parish councils and other bodies more quickly, as the hon. Gentleman hinted. The time scales can therefore be improved by the use of the new technology. As everyone agrees, parish councils play a key role in the planning process. There is disagreement in some instances between the case officer and a parish council but, as I   have said, many councils still consider such cases in committee. It is entirely possible to reform the culture of the service at both member and officer level to reflect the need for speedy, good-quality and transparent decisions while retaining public confidence in the integrity of the decision-making process.

In the past four years nearly 3,000 parishes have been   working on parish plans. Based on extensive consultation, a parish plan identifies and prioritises a
 
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community's needs, and sets out the way in which they might be tackled. The local planning authority should always take account of the existence of such parish plans and other village plans when designing the local development schemes that set out their programme of plan making in their areas. Parish plans and village plans provide useful evidence of rural issues and may suggest suitable options for rural areas when development plans are drawn up. Parishes can then request the local planning authority to publicise, consult on, and adopt those elements of parish plans that elaborate on development plan policy as supplementary planning documents.

Considerable voluntary effort goes into making parish plans, as we all know. Naturally, local communities do not want to feel that their efforts have had no result. If adopted as a supplementary planning document, a parish's vision of its future can take its place within the local development framework as a consideration to be given due weight whenever relevant development proposals are under discussion. It is important to emphasise that parish councils must involve themselves fully from the start in the preparation of their local authority's development plan documents. As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are about 120 parishes in his district of South Somerset. I   am afraid I cannot remember how many there are in Mendip, but there is a substantial number of parish councils. South Somerset district council is confident that those parish councils will continue to receive a good service from its development control team, including attendance by individual officers at parish council meetings where appropriate.

Allowing parishes to become planning decision makers would, as I have suggested, be prohibitively expensive. The Government do not intend to take that route for that reason and the others that I have outlined. In our view, the present mechanisms—I acknowledge that they do not always work perfectly and to people's satisfaction—form the right model, and give ample opportunity for a parish to reach a view and for that view to be taken into account. No one in local government should wish to antagonise their communities with unnecessary and insensitive development. It is unlikely that teething problems that may arise in particular delegation schemes cannot be sorted out by the relevant local authority under its own protocols within the existing framework of law and guidance.

I know that some might feel that delegation to officers means that they lose the opportunity to see applications debated in public. They might take a similar line, however, when a proposal is passed to an area committee for determination instead of to the full planning committee. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the type of delegation schemes that I have described are transparent, with a clear audit trail, and there is still a discretion to send a proposal to the committee if appropriate—for instance, where a scheme is controversial. The only real change is loss of automatic referral to the committee where parish views conflict with those of the designated officer. In that regard, I   think that the balance is right.
 
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I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome for giving us the opportunity to have this debate. I indicated that I would try to answer all his questions.

Mr. Heath: The Minister has given an extremely full response, for which I am grateful. I do not want to prolong the debate further, but will he address specifically the point about village plans and how they are treated in planning terms, because many of my villages that have produced village plans feel strongly that they ought to have a more significant status in terms of arriving at development control decisions?

Mr. Woolas: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I will put the matter on the record for the benefit of his constituents and others who might be interested.

Under the new system, supplementary planning documents have statutory status, although they are not part of the statutory development plan. We are still in a transitional phase. To ensure that authorities can continue to have supplementary material in place, PPS 12 states that, as part of the transitional arrangements, supplementary planning guidance can continue to supplement "saved" development plan policies and will remain while "saved" policies are in place. However, supplementary planning guidance will need to be replaced by supplementary planning documents when new development plan documents are adopted replacing "saved" policies. I ask the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome to bear with me, as it does make sense.

Supplementary planning documents form part of the new local development framework. They have greater weight than the old supplementary guidance because they have complied with the requirements for community involvement and sustainability appraisal and conform with the development plan policy. Therefore, more power is given to supplementary planning documents than under the old system.

Parish plans can add value by expressing a greater level of detail than is possible in development plan documents. While parish plans may be adopted as a supplementary planning document, that is not to be seen
 
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as the norm. Technically, a supplementary planning document has to supplement a development plan document policy. Turning parish plans into supplementary planning documents is likely to be time-consuming. In South Somerset, for example, the small planning department is trying to prioritise housing delivery and regeneration, so there are tensions. Parish plans are in the nature of community planning, and only when requirements such as public involvement and sustainability appraisal have been met may the spatial planning components, possibly modified, be adoptable. That is the policy outline for the parish plan. I see that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome is frowning. If he wants to write to me to take up specific points, I   will, of course, try to answer him.

Parish planning is a tried and tested tool for strengthening local democracy and engaging citizens in how their local area and services are managed. During the past four years, nearly 3,000 parishes have been producing 1,250 parish plans, and when one bears in mind that many of those are in clusters, the extent of their geographical coverage is clear. From 2001 to 2005, parish plans were delivered and supported by the Countryside Agency, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made available more than £1 million for parish plans this year, and will continue offering support for parish plans and parish councils from 2006 through the rural social and   community programme. Rural community councils allocate grants for villages to produce a parish plan of up to £5,000. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome will be pleased to know that some parish plans have been adopted as supplementary planning documents, and can provide a valuable evidence base for decision makers.

The benefits of the strategy do exist. I hope that I have been able to convince the House of the Government's genuine intention of involving parishes and parish councils in decision making. I also hope that I have explained the balance of powers between planning authority and parish, and how we intend to proceed with the policy in the White Paper debate.

Question put and agreed to.




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