Normally, parish councils only make it into the news when a village stalwart finally decides to retire after having been a councillor for the last 49 years, or as a means of adding comic value to stories of petty bureaucracy by so-called jobsworths. So it was heartening over the weekend to see two stories that were a break from the norm.
On Saturday, Geoffrey Lean in the Daily Telegraph wrote about the forthcoming National Planning Policy Framework – due to be published later this month – that will set out the Government’s official guidance on how local councils should consider planning applications.
Planning related matters must surely be at the top of any list of issues that will cause a community to collectively rise up in objection. Whether it’s next door’s extension or the line of route of the proposed High Speed 2 railway, almost everyone has an opinion on their neighbourhood and what it should look like. The difficulty for the planning regime is that local opinions are invariably that things should just be left exactly as they currently are, a premise which is both impossible and impractical to anybody who thinks about these things for more than a fleeting moment.
Although they aren’t the Local Planning Authority (and therefore not directly responsible for planning matters), parish councils spend an awful lot of time on planning issues, either responding to consultations on individual applications and local planning policies, or because they will invariably be at (or near) the forefront of local campaigns against new development of one sort or another.
The 'talk' from the Government since it got elected in May last year is that local communities are to be given more say in deciding on planning applications within their community. But this is only half true: the Localism Bill currently going through Parliament will give communities more scope to support applications that would otherwise not be granted, but communities will not be empowered to reject planning applications that the borough council wants to approve.
Perhaps there really are villages up and down the country full of residents that are desperate for more houses, shops and industrial units that the council don't want to give permission for. But forgive me if I doubt that to really be the case!
What concerns me more - and touched on in the Geoffrey Lean article - is proposals for planning authorities to be able to formally take into account financial incentives in granting planning permission. At the moment, developers can agree a financial contribution to the local council to help offset the impact of planning permission being granted. Typically, this could be the cost of building a children's play area on a new housing estate, or paying for a local bus service where one did not currently exist.
The significant change that is proposed by the Government now is that the amount of money a developer is prepared to pay to the council can be a material consideration in deciding whether to grant planning permission or not. And it doesn't require too much of a stretch of the imagination to see that a large enough amount of money will always be able to outweigh the negative impact of planning permission. In other words, if enough money is offered up by way of incentive, then the local council will have very little option but to approve the planning application. I'm currently waiting for someone to explain to me the difference between this and what's commonly considered to be bribery.
For whilst this change won't be of great benefit for somebody trying to get permission for a ground floor extension to their house, developers of wind farms (amongst many others) must at this very moment be calculating exactly how much "financial incentive" is needed to reach the tipping point to guarantee them planning approval.
If this has an indirect impact on parish councils, then David Cameron's plans to give them "sweeping powers" to run local neighbourhoods (including licensing pubs and controlling parking) could genuinely be transformational. Patrick Hennessy trailed this in the Sunday Telegraph ahead of Cameron's launch of his Open Spaces White Paper today.
I've not read the White Paper yet and so shall save my comments for another time, but I am supportive of anything that genuinely devolves responsibility down to communities, and that recognises that the most democratic and accountable body that can oversee these responsibilities within a village is the local parish council.
I am convinced that parish councils have the unfortunate reputation that they (largely) do have because people struggle to see how they are relevant to their everyday lives. But by placing the parish council at the centre of village life - and giving it real and meaningful responsibilities - the public should engage with it more, leading to more people wanting to be parish councillors because they'll see a reason in wanting to be one. This should lead to finally having contested elections, and the improved accountability and legitimacy that parish councillors gain as a result of this.
I'll blog more on the Open Public Services White Paper over the coming days and weeks, but in the meantime if this post has interested you enough to read some more, then take a look at the proposals yourself here:And look out for (hopefully!) many more newspaper stories featuring your local parish council delivering important and worthwhile public services.
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