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No one can deny the need for affordable housing, but developers will often come up with reasons for having less affordable housing than is needed. The cost of decontaminating land is a favourite excuse, or developers offer to build at lower densities if they do not have to include a full quota of affordable homes. Councils’ role as the “people’s champion” in the
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planning process can be, and often is, overstated. They are not always on the ball when it comes to promoting community involvement.

Statements of community involvement, required by the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, often pay lip service to community requirements. There is a crying need—so far unmet—for an action plan in areas such as Guiseley and other parts of my constituency, such as Horsforth and Pudsey, to be drawn up with the local community to address how the area can cope with substantial growth in new house building. The 2004 Act allows for those action plans, but we have yet to see them emerge in the communities that I represent.

All that adds up to one inescapable conclusion: the present system for community involvement in planning is limited. Even as it stands, it is not being used to its full potential, but to move away from what we have got—which may be what Barker recommends—would be a retrograde step that must be resisted. While I welcome the Government’s commitments in the policy document “Public Involvement: the Government’s Objectives”, there is a wide gap between the aspirations and the experience of people on the ground. I have listed some of the challenges to greater participation, but there are others, which are also undermining the credibility of the system.

A significant challenge relates to the poor implementation of existing regulations, such as statements of community involvement. Many—57 out of 168—SCIs have been sent back by the planning inspectorate because of basic procedural flaws, including the failure to consult parish councils and other important community organisations. That seems to indicate that some local authorities are not prioritising the basic requirements of SCIs, let alone including new ways of having dialogue with their communities.

The ambition of the 2004 Act for greater participation is not being met, largely because of a lack of resources and a culture in the profession that continues to believe that “We know best”. While planning aid has made some difference, many individuals and communities get little or no support with the technical language and procedures of the planning process. Developers often have access to professional expertise to make their case, while important community voices are not heard.

The second and greatest challenge—as I have already suggested—comes from Kate Barker’s interim report. That report, along with annex A of the energy review—a preserve of the Department of Trade and Industry—has raised questions about the merits of public involvement in everything from major infrastructure projects to the details of local development frameworks. My concern—shared by many people in my constituency—is that those two documents constitute an assault on local constitutional arrangements, based on a very narrow economic analysis of the benefits of the planning system. At the very least, it sends the wrong message to the profession and the public.

The interim Barker report does not provide any analysis of the very significant barriers to public participation that exist in the system now. Nor is there
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any discussion of the wide range of institutionalised advantages that the development industry currently enjoys. On only one occasion does the report touch on the unequal distribution of rights of redress. Paragraph 4.32 states:

That celebration of the absence of basic rights of redress in planning for communities illustrates the review team’s inability to consider the wider importance of planning in local government.

I am also particularly concerned about proposals to abolish the right to be heard in the preparation of statements of community involvement. The interim report raises further concerns about existing levels of consultation in the planning process. Paragraph 3.36 describes the requirement for statements of community involvement as

It alleges that:

There appears to be a growing view that the right to be heard in testing the statements of community involvement established by the 2004 Act may be under threat.

I accept that although SCIs can and should be made more effective, the withdrawal of that right would send entirely the wrong message to planning professionals and communities. It implies that participation is to be cut back and that the Government believe that participation has gone too far, when precisely the opposite is true. Great care is needed to ensure that that message does not further compromise effective community participation.

The Barker report also appears to question the established plan-led system. For example, paragraph 4.30 states:

One can only assume that correcting the problem will lead to the final report softening the emphasis on a plan-led system. That would have a huge effect on the participation debate, because there is little or no point in having robust community rights of participation if the final plan has only a limited impact on the way decisions are reached. Many communities would simply ask, “What’s the point in participating?”

Where do we go from here? As the final Barker report is due out in December, can my hon. Friend the Minister give some assurance that public participation will be carefully considered in any reform package? In particular, we need a more balanced analysis of planning that does not focus solely on the needs of business; it is public legitimacy that requires support if we are to deliver the integration of sustainable
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development objectives. From my reading of the interim report, it is difficult to see how Barker’s analysis of the “problem” of community involvement can be squared with existing Government policy, which aims to enhance it. I hope that my hon. Friend can reassure me on each of the points I have raised.

10.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) on securing the debate. He has a long record of advocacy on this issue and continues to raise his concerns on behalf of his constituents.

One of the key aims of the Government’s reform of the planning system centres on community engagement. We want both more and better-quality community engagement. Our aims were first set out in “Community Involvement in Planning: the Government’s Objectives”, published in February 2004. They were confirmed in the cornerstone of Government planning policy, to which my hon. Friend referred, planning policy statement 1, “Delivering Sustainable Development”, published in February 2005.

In its key principles, planning policy statement 1 states:

The statement goes on to note that community involvement in planning should not be a reactive, tick-box process, but enable the local community to say what sort of place they want to live in at a stage when it can make a difference. Effective community involvement requires an approach that tells communities about emerging policies and proposals in good time, and it must enable them to put forward ideas and suggestions and participate in developing proposals and options. It is not sufficient simply to invite them to comment once the proposals have been worked up. Consultation on formal proposals is required, and such an approach must ensure that consultation takes place in locations that are widely accessible, and it must provide and seek feedback. Involvement is clearly more effective the earlier it takes place in the process.

Through the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, there is a statutory requirement for local authorities to consult the local community on local development frameworks via the statement of community involvement, to which my hon. Friend rightly referred at length. This ensures that groups are involved in development plan processes. The statement of community involvement also has to set out the local authority’s policy on involving its community in consulting on planning applications.

Regional planning bodies are also required to prepare, publish and keep under review a statement of public participation on regional spatial strategies, to which my hon. Friend referred. The regional planning body, in preparing the RSS, should work in partnership
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with regional organisations and encourage community involvement, so that key organisations and the wider community can be involved and inform the strategy’s content.

My Department has produced material to help local authorities in preparing their statements of community involvement. Our good practice guide, “Creating Local Development Frameworks”, contains a chapter on producing statements of community involvement, and we undertook a comprehensive roll-out programme in the autumn of 2004, including seminars in each region on statement of community involvement production. We are taking every opportunity to encourage good practice, including close liaison between planning and local government group officials within the Department, to ensure that local authorities take an approach that will enable the best use of their sometimes scarce resources, and to avoid the danger of consultation fatigue.

Statements of community involvement have played an important role in getting the message across to local planning authorities, developers and the public that effective community involvement is a central and underlying principle of the “new” planning system. Some 300 statements of community involvement have been submitted to the Planning Inspectorate for scrutiny. Nearly 120 have been adopted, and a further 88 have received a binding inspector’s report. Out of this total, one statement has been found to be “unsound” by the Planning Inspectorate.

My hon. Friend referred to the inspectorate returning a large number statements of community involvement because of procedural flaws. There was a specific problem with a small number of the first statements to be submitted, in that authorities had failed to consult parish councils adjoining their area. That matter has been resolved and authorities are clear about the regulatory requirements. I trust that my hon. Friend accepts that this is a developing process and that, as people become more skilled in it, they should get better.

At the other end of the spectrum, we already have, I am pleased to say, a number of very good statements of community involvement, such as those developed by Plymouth council, among others. They state their council’s aim to go further than the minimum requirements to ensure more innovative, effective and wide-ranging community involvement. Importantly, they also include comprehensive coverage of how the council will engage with hard-to-reach groups—another issue to which my hon. Friend referred.

The Government are committed to ensuring that planning policies and practice take account of the communities that they serve and reflect the lives that people live today. Widespread social and demographic changes over the last three decades mean that equality and diversity issues are no longer minority considerations. Local planning authorities need to keep up with that change. It is very important that the views of the widest community are canvassed when local planning issues are considered.

Statements of community involvement should be aligned with other work done by councils and their local strategic partnerships to ensure that documents within the local development framework effectively reflect the sustainable community strategies—strategies that are the vision
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statements setting out the plans for improving the economic, social and environmental well-being of each council’s area. My Department will publish revised draft guidance on local strategic partnerships and sustainable community strategies later this year, and we have also commissioned the Royal Town Planning Institute to write guidance providing practical advice on how to improve the relationship between local strategic partnerships and spatial planning. That guidance will be issued alongside local strategic partnership guidance later this year. We are working closely with a range of departments and practitioners to make it as useful as possible.

My hon. Friend identified the need to address issues around housing growth. I assure him that we are aware of the matter and we are examining how best to do that. It is already my Department's policy to encourage developers to enter into more consultation with local communities on large sites prior to the submission of planning applications.

My hon. Friend raised the subject of section 106 agreements. In August 2006, we published “Planning Obligations: Practice Guidance” and a model section 106 agreement, the aims of which are to improve the development, negotiation and implementation of planning obligations. The Government are also considering responses to their proposal for a planning gain supplement as a means to provide additional funding for the infrastructure necessary to support growth. There will be further announcements on that by the end of the year.

My hon. Friend mentioned his desire for third parties to have a right of appeal—a matter that he has raised on several occasions. Third parties do not have a right of appeal in the way that applicants do because it is the responsibility of local planning authorities to act in the general public interest when determining planning applications. Local authorities must determine planning applications in accordance with the development plan for the area unless material considerations indicate otherwise; those can include views expressed by local residents and other parties.

The Government do not propose to change that position, because in our view it goes straight to the heart of the democratic process. I am sorry to have to disappoint my hon. Friend. Elected members must be allowed to reject their officers’ advice, because it is the councillors, not the officers, who are answerable to their electorate. A third party right of appeal could be used to delay or effectively veto many otherwise acceptable developments, which would bring benefits to local communities in terms of homes, jobs and regeneration of neighbourhoods.

I am sure that my hon. Friend shares my desire to see more people get the chance of a step on the housing ladder, as well as better choice and quality for those who rent. In the Yorkshire and Humber region—an area that he and I both represent—the current target for provision of homes is nearly 15,000 a year for the next 10 years. The Yorkshire and Humber plan is being revised and it will need to set a new target for the provision of homes that is high enough to deliver sustainable communities with high quality, affordable housing for future generations.

My hon. Friend referred to people having difficulty accessing the planning process. Both individuals and community groups rightly complain that they cannot
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afford professional advice on planning issues compared to big developers or local authorities. As he said, it is for that reason that the Planning Aid organisation exists. It provides free expert planning advice to people and communities who could not otherwise afford it. My Department is providing £5.3 million over five years to Planning Aid to expand its services on a national basis. We have also supported the expansion of so-called e-planning services, which enable people to access more information online, and 95 per cent. of local authorities are now rated good or excellent in provision of such services.

Following Kate Barker’s report on housing supply, the Government accepted the case for a significant increase in supply. We accept that proper community involvement is necessary if we are to realise our aim to increase house building in England to 200,000 units per year in the medium term. As my hon. Friend mentioned, Kate Barker’s interim report on her review of land use planning was issued in July. It provided a helpful analysis of how the planning system currently impacts on economic development. Although I
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acknowledge my hon. Friend’s concern about some aspects of the report’s analysis, it is important to remember that it was an interim report. Kate Barker has made it clear that it is vital that her final recommendations do not advance business interests above environmental and social interests.

I assure my hon. Friend that, wherever possible, we want communities and individuals themselves to have control over the decisions that affect their lives and that, when they have a contribution to make and where they are part of the solution to problems, they are not held back. Better community involvement requires a change in the culture of planning. I hope that what I have said today provides some reassurance to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Truswell: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Meg Munn: Certainly—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Eleven o'clock.

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