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It seems complete nonsense that a former school site, which is therefore in public ownership, having been used for public service, should be sold to a property developer on which to make a profit, while a faith community, which would have provided social cohesion and facilities for a disadvantaged local community,
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should be denied the chance even to try to buy a small fraction of it. Particularly in growing towns like Northampton, there is an opportunity to get things right. We must ensure that as local authorities and development corporations plan the schools, hospitals and infrastructure that they need, they recognise not only that people bring along their faiths and their belief systems, which are an important part of their community, but that those needs, as well as people's educational, health and other social needs, must be met.

The former half-sentence included in PPG12 was certainly inadequate, but that half a sentence was better than nothing. I was extremely sorry that the already small recognition in the planning system of the needs of faith communities was completely deleted when PPG12 was cancelled. I was also sorry that when the Department was approached, rather than the requirement being built up, it was just deleted.

The Government do not need to go out to huge consultation before drawing up some guidelines, which I hope they will do as a result of this debate. They should make a commitment to include in the planning guidance a requirement for local planning authorities, in undertaking development plans for the spatial needs of urban areas, to be obliged to assess the needs of the faith communities and to make proper provision in those plans for those needs. Authorities should be required to have a proper structure in place and to undertake proper consultation with the faith communities. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 provides an example. Proper recognition could be made of the real contribution of faith communities to the material benefit of local communities. This should be properly recognised, progressed and protected.

I cannot tell my hon. Friend the Minister how important this is for the communities that have played such an active role in Northampton, and I am sure that the same applies to other towns throughout the country, which so far have not been able, despite their best and most strenuous efforts, to get what they perhaps want most of all-a place where they can meet as a community and worship. They need a proper landmark and tribute paid within their towns to the beliefs that they hold dear and that define their community.

5.3 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Barbara Keeley): I hope that any hon. Members present and yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will not see me as a poor substitute for a Department for Communities and Local Government Minister; I shall try to do my best. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) for introducing this debate on faith buildings. I did not originally intend to be here, but I have found the debate to be fascinating. The issues posed crop up in many inner-city areas-mine as much as my hon. Friend's and others-so we need to look at them. My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), who contributed in an intervention, have raised the key issues.

The DCLG Minister was going to touch on the fact that this debate provides a rare opportunity to look at the issue of buildings owned or used by faith communities.
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In our short debate, we have considered the question of the interaction of faith groups with the planning system, and found it wanting. My hon. Friend made key points about that.

It might help if I refer to some of the points that the DCLG Minister would have made in the debate. In terms of the bigger picture, the Government ask local authorities to show civic leadership in how they look at such issues. Local authorities are encouraged to create visions for their community; they are the bodies that can tackle the issues raised.

My hon. Friend touched on planning policy statement 12, which is entitled "Creating strong, safe and prosperous communities through local spatial planning". She rightly said that access to an appropriate building for a new faith community or one that is in the process of becoming established is a key issue that every local authority should address. Perhaps one of the places in which it should be addressed is the local strategic partnership. Those partnerships are meant to bring together the public, private and third sectors, and to co-ordinate the contribution that each can make.

Ms Keeble: My hon. Friend is not in any way a poor substitute; she knows a lot about planning. However, PPS12 contains nothing at all about faith communities. It is absolutely right that there should be debates in the local strategic partnerships and elsewhere, but I have found that that is all that happens. There have been lots of debates in the development corporation, for example, but we need action. There should be a statutory duty in the planning process to consider and to provide for the needs of faith communities. There must be a clear requirement in the process that those needs be considered and dealt with.

Barbara Keeley: Those points have been strongly made, and I will ensure that DCLG Ministers take them on board.

It is clear that, even as the planning policy structures stand, they should be taking into account issues such as access for faith communities to land and buildings to allow them to follow their faith according to whatever form of witness they decide to adopt. There should be provision for places of worship, just as there is for child care, play and all the other things that are taken into account alongside the obvious factors such as industry, employment and the more standard parts of the national planning policy. The planning process is not meant to be one-size-fits-all, but local authorities-county and city councils-should be taking account of the needs of their own communities.

Mr. Pelling: Perhaps it is relevant that we are debating this on the night of Epiphany. I know that that is meant to be about the journey of the three wise men, but I can definitely see three wise women on the Labour Benches. I very much want to support what the Minister says. When members of communities such as the Shi'a community in Croydon have to move from one person's home to another to pray, it means that a great deal of the voluntary support that exists in the community is not delivered as well as it could be were there a place of worship in which they could base their community activities. The Minister makes an important point.

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Barbara Keeley: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.

The notes for the Minister's speech refer to various aspects of planning controls. I remember that when I was an elected member of local government and responsible for a town centre, I found dealing with planning controls to be one of the most frustrating aspects of that role. We constantly found ourselves battling with the system. Whatever the law says, it tends to be the planning officers who have a great deal of say over such matters.

Whether the existing law is helpful or not, it says that buildings such as schools and public halls should be able to be turned into places of worship, just as they can be turned into day centres, crèches, health centres or whatever. My hon. Friend highlighted a key aspect of the issue when she described the wider benefit of those measures to community cohesion. I recently attended the opening of a new building for the Methodist community in Boothstown in my constituency. It will be a genuinely multi-use building. In fact, funding was obtained for it on the basis that it would not just be a place of worship-useful though that is-but double up as a resource that would be of considerable benefit to the wider community. That was absolutely key. If that point is not getting across to the local authority in my hon. Friend's constituency, it should be. Her point is well made, because faith communities are not only providers of sacred and secular space for people, but a key resource in communities, particularly for newly arrived communities or communities that are working to establish themselves.

There have been publications recently on faith buildings, but the key thing is to take away the very strong point that in PPS12, we appear to have guidance that does not recognise, in even half a sentence, the need for regeneration bodies or other partnership bodies to take into account the needs of faith communities. We have heard some excellent examples in the debate of where PPS12 is falling down, and we should take my hon. Friend's points back to the Department.

Ms Keeble: I understand that my hon. Friend is in quite a difficult position because she is not a DCLG Minister. In her capacity as Deputy Leader of the
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House, could she, as a way forward, facilitate a meeting in that Department-perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to be party to it-to look both at the possibility of producing some appropriate guidance that would recognise this issue and at the need for strong guidance for local authorities, drawing on the good practice that already exists in some areas?

Barbara Keeley: Yes, indeed. My local authority is currently going through its strategic planning phase, as are many local authorities-I do not know whether my hon. Friend's local authority is doing so. My local authority is considering strategic planning up to 2026. That process, as well as the normal day-to-day planning applications to which she referred, is key. There is an indication that there is a very substantial gap or lacuna in the planning process. If my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman can cite examples where the guidance is not working at local level, it behoves the Department to start thinking about whether a duty should be placed on local councils to consider such things.

The situation is that it will be inappropriate to carry on using converted service stations, disused cinemas or that type of building, and the new faith communities, as they settle, will not continue to be prepared to use them. It is true that we have some wonderful church buildings in our communities-there are some wonderful old churches in my constituency-but more newly arrived faith communities deserve buildings that are useful for purpose, too.

I do not think that the Minister would have offered anything specific if he had responded to the debate, so my hon. Friend makes a very sensible suggestion. I am quite prepared, as if this were a pre-recess Adjournment debate, to take her point away and to facilitate a meeting for her.

Question put and agreed to.

5.13 pm

House adj ourned.

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