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8 Jan 2008 : Column 52WH—continued

12.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): Happy new year to you, Mr. Hancock. It is a pleasure to have you as our Chairman—you have chaired a couple of Adjournment debates that I have taken part in. Let me also say happy new year to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and congratulate him on securing this Adjournment debate. He talked about One Nottingham, the local strategic partnership, but he did not mention that he actually chairs it—I assume that he still does, because he certainly used to.

This is the third in a trilogy of Adjournment debates initiated by my hon. Friend that I have answered, and they have always been a joy. Early intervention has been the strand running through them all. The first debate was about the “Every Child a Reader” scheme and reading recovery, and I can still recall the statistics that he used. According to his figures, which I still use, investing £5,000 under the scheme to enable a five-year-old to learn to read ultimately saves us about £250,000 a year, which is what it would cost if that child ended up involved in the criminal justice system. I also know from my time in what was the Department for Education and Skills that my hon. Friend encouraged Nottingham to be involved in the midwife and health visitor-led early intervention pilots, which he mentioned. His influence has therefore made a big difference to the way in which Nottingham focuses its local area agreement work.

I will say a little about Nottingham in a few moments, but let me first talk about the demonstration sites and the work that the Government have done on the framework, which I hope has helped to make possible some of the things that Nottingham wishes to do in the coming years.

The year 2007 was important because of the big changes that took place in the local government landscape. Piece by piece, we are delivering the framework that we promised in the local government White Paper. We saw the passage of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, which puts local area agreements on a statutory footing and moves them from the margins to the centre of the new local government performance framework. We also undertook the dry run of the new local area agreements and published new guidance, so that everyone can, we hope, make a success of them. Furthermore, we got the new national indicator set down from 1,200 to 198, which was not an easy task, but it was an important achievement. Those are the main building blocks that will help to support a new and more mature relationship between local and central Government, as set out in the local government White Paper.

Local area agreements must add value to existing partnerships and lead to genuinely new and improved ways of partnership working. With that in mind, we have started to work with a small group of partnerships that will act as demonstration areas to help raise the bar in delivering ambitious local area agreements, as my hon. Friend has said. He mentioned that Nottingham is
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seeking not extra resource, but Government expertise. That is obviously a two-way process, with the Government seeking the expertise of Nottingham and other local authorities to help to shape future policy.

The new performance framework and the radical extension of freedom from centrally set targets have already removed many barriers previously faced by local authorities, but we recognise that systemic issues continue to be seen by many as a block to effective partnership working, thus limiting the delivery of more ambitious outcomes.

The aim of the demonstration areas programme is to adopt a problem-solving, collaborative approach, identifying and developing either local solutions to the barriers to delivery or changes to central Government policy. The demonstration areas are not piloting new-style local area agreements; nor will they be treated differently during the negotiations from those partnerships that are not involved.

The process is about local authorities and their local strategic partnerships, Government offices, Departments and Ministers working collaboratively to consider the barriers to delivery and tear them down, sharing what is learned from the process, so that it will be possible, with the whole local government family, to create real success in the future, and for the Government, as I have said, to learn, share some of the best practice and drive policy changes. That will enable everyone to make local area agreements work for them.

The demonstration areas programme will be taken forward through a series of theme-based problem-solving workshops with a focus on working together to explore what works and what could work. Seven broad themes have been identified for exploration by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The detail of the themes and the scope and content of the workshops will be co-designed and owned by the participants. The process has already begun at official level with representatives from the partnerships, Government offices and Departments meeting to discuss the overall programme, asking for representatives to select the workshops that they would like to scope, design or attend. The broad themes are reacting to changing circumstances within the new performance framework; focusing on crime, worklessness, citizen empowerment, health, children and young people; housing and planning; and multi-area agreements.

There will be three main stages in taking the workshops forward. First, for each theme, there will be a planning stage meeting, which will involve working with key people from the demonstration areas, Departments and Government offices to scope out the theme and agree the content for a working session event and a ministerial workshop. It is proposed that two to three partnerships will help to lead each planning meeting and working session, and Nottingham will obviously be part of that, and a working session will follow. It will be an event of up to one full day, for interested partnerships, and the aims will be to get to grips with the main issues of the topic, including identifying the challenges, examples of current successful ways of working and potential solutions, and to agree the key issues to be taken forward for discussion with Ministers.

The third important element is the ministerial workshop, which will be an opportunity to discuss the agreed key issues identified at the working sessions and possible
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ways forward, including those issues identified for Ministers to take forward. As I have said, one stage of the process will involve the expertise of Government in supporting local authorities such as Nottingham, but Government will also learn from the expertise of local areas.

We are very pleased that Nottingham will be a demonstration area for local area agreements. It is a well deserved opportunity for Nottingham to be involved with partner areas and the Government in the sharing of good practice and the development of innovative local solutions to help deliver an ambitious local area agreement for the people of Nottingham. As my hon. Friend said, great progress has been made locally in the past two years. That is clear evidence of the progress that partners in Nottingham have made, working together as an effective local strategic partnership. As well as providing an opportunity to learn from others, being involved in the programme will allow Nottingham to demonstrate to other areas and to local government as a whole how they can benefit from its approach as an early intervention city.

We welcome such an innovative approach to tackling the ingrained intergenerational problems faced by many people in Nottingham. That approach encompasses a variety of mechanisms to support people across the board, ranging from support for mums-to-be who will need help with their babies, as my hon. Friend mentioned, through early years support for families provided by health visitors and local children’s centres, to providing teenagers with the right skills to make effective choices in relationships. My hon. Friend mentioned targeted youth support, and I have also mentioned projects, such as “Every Child a Reader”, which my hon. Friend has discussed in this Chamber on other occasions.

The Government are keen to see how the key partners working together in Nottingham will progress the ambitious programme to make improvements in services and break the cycle of deprivation and social exclusion. We would encourage Nottingham to take full advantage of the flexibilities allowed by the Government’s decision to announce, for the first time, a finance settlement that covers three years. Along with the new local area agreement that is currently being negotiated with central Government, that will provide a clear opportunity to plan ahead and to use the settlement to focus on the priorities that really matter in improving the lives and life chances of the people of Nottingham.

The taking of a long-term view on how to tackle the deep-rooted issues that affect the city is to be truly commended, and Nottingham and the other demonstration areas should view the new local area agreement as an integral part of the process and a way of changing the culture of partnership working to deliver long-term change. We understand that, as part of that planning for long-term change, Nottingham will be looking at how to use its financial flexibility to develop an invest-to-save model. The Government would be happy to explore that further with Nottingham and my hon. Friend as part of the demonstration process, as Nottingham firms up its ideas.

Nottingham’s involvement as a demonstration area will therefore give the city a chance to show what can be done when partners work together with a clear focus and the right tools for delivery. Nottingham will have a lot to share with other demonstration areas, other parts of the country and, importantly, Departments. It is
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vital that Nottingham should clearly demonstrate to central Government how its approach to early intervention is progressing, so that, across Whitehall, we can ensure that Government policy does not inadvertently put barriers in the way of delivering improvements in the way my hon. Friend alluded to. The Government are making strides in ensuring that Departments act in a more joined-up manner, and we would be happy to explore how that can be further enhanced through the demonstration site process.

We can assure partners in Nottingham that Ministers will continue to be interested in Nottingham’s progress as a demonstration area and in its approach to early intervention over the coming year. It was very nice to be invited by my hon. Friend to visit Nottingham, which is something that I am always delighted to do and have been able to do regularly as a Minister. It is nice for me, not least because I was a resident of the city for five years; it is where I did my degree and my masters degree. It is a great city, a great place to be and a place with unique challenges. It is great to see my hon. Friend and his colleagues doing so much to tackle the issues.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. I do not like to interrupt, but the time has evaporated. I thank the hon. Member for Nottingham, North and the Minister for an interesting debate.

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Local Government (Planning)

1 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), is clearly having a busy morning. He was kind enough to say that he would visit Nottingham at the end of the previous debate, so perhaps if I extend an invitation to him he will visit Lewes to deal with planning functions there. He has been to Lewes but he has not, as far as I know, spent five years there. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), is responding to this debate, but I would be happy for them both to visit Lewes if they wish.

This is an important debate for local accountability, which is why I have raised the matter. If local people are asked what are the functions of their local council or local government, the first thing they say is that the council empties the dustbins. The second thing they say is that the council deals with planning. People associate planning with local councils and, indeed, they think it ought to be a local council matter, but I am concerned that we are moving to a stage at which there is undue Government interference on a micro level with local councils’ planning functions.

There has always been Government regulation of local authorities and planning functions. It is right that there is planning policy guidance and statements, and it is not unreasonable of the Government to set an indicator of eight weeks in which the outcome of an application is to be determined. However, we have moved into other areas, which are of more concern. Not very long ago, I spent some years sitting on the planning committee of my local authority, as you may have done in Portsmouth, Mr. Hancock. The committee dealt with a wide range of applications, and it dealt with them well. A range of members served on the committee, some of whom had been around for a long time and knew the history of the area. Other members were brand new and had some good ideas. The chemistry of the committee was successful in delivering the planning function through the committee process.

In recent years, however, the Government have moved almost to exclude elected members from taking decisions on planning applications; there is a push to delegate as much as possible to officers. Why should unelected officers be more accountable than elected councillors? Of course, some applications fit in to a system and are clearly within the terms of the local plan. Such applications are either controversial or uncontroversial, so they can be clearly rejected or accepted. In my day, about 50 per cent. of applications were delegated, so I am not suggesting that councils should take every single decision. However, we are now getting to the stage where 80 or 90 per cent. of applications are dealt with by officers—the figure is even higher in some local authorities.

Council members find that frustrating, but so do members of the public. They do not understand why, when they elect local councillors to take decisions on planning matters and lobby them to that end, a decision on an application that is important to them should be taken by an officer of whom they have never heard in a room that they did not know existed. It might be a small
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matter in the big scheme of things, but if a person’s next-door neighbour gains permission for something that will intrude on them, it is a serious matter to them. The least that such people would wish to do is to lobby the local council and have some influence on the matter, but that is increasingly rare under the current system. Will the Minister explain why there has been a move to exclude local councillors from the majority of planning decisions taken by local planning authorities, as I believe that that is undemocratic and unaccountable?

The system has become corrupt—I do not mean corrupt in a financial sense, but in the sense that local authorities chase targets that do not necessarily deliver the best planning result for their area. The grant system in my local authority is known as a “game show” approach. Councils are forced to chase targets—often arbitrary targets—that they know will attract grants and which will therefore improve their financial position, rather than focus on the key planning issues in their area. What is worse, grants are managed on an annual drip-feed, which means that it is uncertain from one year to the next exactly how much will be coming forward. That makes it difficult for planning authorities to retain and, indeed, to attract staff.

Lewes district council in my constituency is so thin on staff, so tight is the ship being run, so few are the officers employed, that the director of planning, because of staff illness, is now determining simple household applications on his own. There is hardly anyone else in the department—that is how thin things have become because of pressures on finances and because of the drip-feed of planning grant. It is an issue for local authorities in London and the south-east in particular, but perhaps it applies more widely. The problems are going to get worse in times ahead.

I query, too, Government interference as regards the call-in procedure. I call it interference, but the Minister might regard that as pejorative: perhaps he would prefer to call it micro-management, or perhaps to use neither of those terms. Ministers say that they rarely call in applications. I do not know what the statistics are—perhaps the Minister has them—but my perception is that the call-in procedure has been increasingly used in the past couple of years rather than diminishing in frequency. I should be interested to hear the figures from the Minister if he has them.

An example from my patch is the controversial proposal for a wind turbine at Glyndebourne. I understand that the Minister cannot comment in detail on the issue because it is live, but he might address the general point. The proposal is for one wind turbine to provide sufficient energy to power Glyndebourne opera house, which is a prestigious building in my constituency. It has been called in by the Secretary of State, despite the fact that it has been subject to significant local consultation and debate involving local councillors, who are elected to represent people in the area, and despite the fact that the decision to allow permission was reached by the council committee following a long presentation featuring petitions and opportunities for comment from both sides. The decision was made on a cross-party basis, but the Government nevertheless decided to call it in. Worse, Glyndebourne subsequently applied for permission to erect a temporary meteorological mast for a period of one year only so that it could provide supporting information for the wind turbine application. For example,
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the mast would measure wind speeds in the area, which would affect how the turbine would react if and when it was established. However, the application for temporary permission, for one year, was also called in by the Government, despite the fact that it was again given approval on a cross-party basis by Lewes district council. The Government have called in applications for temporary permission that last for only one year, so one must wonder what is the purpose of local councils. Apart from being an instance of micro-management, that practice has hade an adverse effect on the applicant which, legitimately to establish the facts, set up the forthcoming public inquiry.

I wrote to the Secretary of State on 29 November to ask her on how many occasions the Government had called in applications for temporary permission in the past 10 years. Replying on her behalf, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester, who has left the Chamber—I had thought that he would reply to the debate—said that it was not possible to provide information on how many applications for temporary permissions had been called in during that period. The Government ought to use the measure sparingly, but they do not so much as keep a record, which concerns me.

Another relevant issue is the development plan system, to which the Government are wedded. The Minister might be aware of a recent survey by the Planning Officers Society that shows that the new system is widely believed by practitioners to be too onerous, inflexible and resource-hungry—those are the society’s words. It says that the system has become process-dominated and over-complex, to the point that even the Government’s regional officers and planning inspectorate are unsure how to interpret the legislation. As a result, local authorities receive inconsistent and ever-changing advice on procedure. The requirement for an auditable process—in other words, a tick-box mentality—overrides local authorities’ ability to plan creatively. The Government’s intention to improve the planning system is good, but the consequence is that local authorities are tied down in bureaucratic manoeuvres, which weakens rather than strengthens the planning process.

The Government are responsible for various negative impacts on the planning process. I have not even mentioned the plan for large numbers of new houses in my area, which by and large does not have the support of the local population. Leaving aside the question of whether it is right, it is seen as a top-down proposal under which the houses are imposed on the area by central Government or by an unelected quango representing “the south-east”. The question is not whether it is right to have the housing, but who makes the proposal and how it comes down to the local people. My constituents believe that they are being told what to have in their backyard and they do not like it. They think that that is undemocratic and so do I.

Occasionally, however, we look to the Government—I shall now argue against myself to some extent—to intervene on a major issue of national significance. I am referring to the proposal for an incinerator on my patch, which is opposed, unlike the Glyndebourne wind turbine, by thousands and thousands of local people. The application for an incinerator in Newhaven has major environmental, transport and economic implications. Controversially, the county council both made the
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application and granted it, but the Government said, “We are not interested in interfering in that matter.” People in my part of the world have therefore concluded that as far as planning is concerned, the Government are micro-managing when they should not do so, and on the rare occasions when they should interfere with a decision, they have failed to do so.

One policy the Minister may wish to consider is preventing local authorities from giving permission for an application that they themselves have made. When an application is made by a local authority, a different but comparable local authority— another county council, or the local district council for a county application or vice versa in a two-tier area—should be responsible for giving permission. It is not consistent with natural justice for the county council in my part of the world to act as judge and jury on its own hated incinerator, but that is what it has chosen to do.

The good news—I hope that it is good news—is that the Government have committed themselves to local area agreements, and I hope that that will reduce the micro-management that I have discussed. If the Government can follow through what they have said on local area agreements, that will be very welcome step that my party colleagues and I will support. I do not wish to suggest that the Government are anything other than well intentioned, but sometimes, in their genuine desire to improve matters and the planning function, their actions have the opposite effects to those that they intended. I hope that the Minister will take this not as an unhelpful rant from me but as a genuine attempt to raise issues that are of concern to my constituents, and will respond constructively.

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