Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Somerset Association of Local Councils (PGP 15)

  This evidence is submitted on behalf of the Somerset Association of Local Councils whose membership comprises the Parish, Town and City Councils in the administrative County of Somerset.

  There are some 260 Local Councils in the County ranging from the Town Council of Yeovil, the City Council of Wells to the Parish Council of Cutcombe (a small settlement in the middle of Exmoor). There are 2,319 Councillors on the Parish Councils in the county.


  I regret that it appears to be necessary to state the position of the Local Councils in the Planning and Development Control functions in the real world.

  Parish, Town and City Councils are statutory consultees on the production of Local Plans as shown in Town and Country Planning (Development Plan) Regulations 1991 at regulation 10 (1) (d).

  Parish, Town and City Councils have the right to be notified of development control applications in their area under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 schedule 1 paragraph 8.

  Power to make the formal decision in respect of some specific applications is delegated to certain Town and Parish Councils in the Taunton Deane Borough Council area. This power arises under the same power that allows an officer to make decisions on behalf of an authority.

  You will readily appreciate that our members are very concerned to see that their work in this area is totally unrecognised in the Green Paper. It was even more annoying therefore to be advised on enquiry that the Department had no intention of sending copies of the paper to all parishes. Indeed, at one time it was claiming an inability to do so; despite the mailing of a reprint of part of the Local Government White Paper to all parishes at about the time of publication.


  Our members are concerned to see that there is a proposal to seek the views of the "community" as part of the process of drawing up a Local Area Framework yet there is no suggestion that the Local (Parish) Council is an appropriate body to put such views. Community involvement is essential.

  Local Councils are directly elected, independent tax-raising authorities required to work in accordance with a statutory code of conduct and formal registration of interests. Meetings of such authorities are conducted openly and in most cases with the public being given an opportunity to comment on the matters being discussed.

  If any other body is used for "community consultation" such rules and codes do not apply to them or to their individual members.

  We note that at paragraph 5.52 it is stated that development control gets right to the heart of the community's interests. The present system whereby the Parish Council makes comments based on local views early in the process is surely the best example of doing just that. There is an element of trust which, if the decision is taken away from the influence of locally directly elected councillors and put in the hands of the un-elected officers, will surely lead to the further lack of trust and respect in local government. The principle applies whether to Local Planning or to Development Control.

  This need to have the involvement of the community whilst needing to avoid the pressure group makes, on its own, a very strong case for the establishment of Parish Councils (called Local Councils perhaps) in the urban areas.


  Ministers in the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have recently launched, through the Countryside Agency, a grant programme in relation to Parish Plans, a proposal which does not rate a mention in the Green Paper. We are tempted to conclude that the days of community involvement in such things as Village Design Statements, Parish Maps and Planning for Real are over. The lack of "joined-up Government" has been a noticeable part of our discussions on these topics out in Area Meetings around the county.

  Member councils are not impressed by proposals to delegate even more applications to officers as this is placing power in the hands of the un-elected and in many cases in the care of individuals who have not acquired sufficient experience or qualifications to do the job properly. It would be far preferable to really mean that the matter gets right to the heart of the local community and to let the local community make the decisions. Only the Parish Councils offer the formal route into the heart of the community.

  Members are concerned at the imposition of crude simple measures which take no account of the quality of decisions and the support for the activities of the planners in the community.


  I am sure that the Association of Park Authorities will be taking up the issue of their oversight but our members noted that the role of the National Park Authorities was also totally overlooked in the paper. This was taken as some evidence therefore of the concern the Department has for the highest quality environment in its charge!


  The move away from the over-bureaucratic Local Plans process is generally welcome but, given the apparent misunderstandings and oversights apparent from the rest of the paper, there appears to be little support for the proposals as presented. The test set in paragraph 5.52 (the extent to which the planning system is trusted by the community) appears to have been failed by the rest of the paper.


  It is this failure to address reality that prompts many of the Association members to support the idea of a third party right of appeal against the granting of permission. Members are well aware of the need for timeliness and for certain hurdles to be set that have to be overcome to avoid the frivolous or vexatious.

  We suggest that the almost perverse decisions of officers or committees should be subject to some form of intervention by the Regional Office to ensure that the process is not brought into disrepute. Some of us have read the Report into the North Cornwall situation and understand the problems that can arise. We would strongly support any proposal that a form of Appeal should be given to a Local Council in the case where a permission is contrary to Policy, and the officer's recommendation; such appeal to be limited to the full council making the decision and to it being made within 14 days of the issue of a provisional certificate. This is a similar position to those decisions made by cabinet style local government which are called in under the scrutiny process.


  Members are keen to see a strengthening of the enforcement process recognising this must be at the expense of additional officers and training. A retrospective planning application should be charged penal rates of fees (suggesting five times the standard charge). Enforcement needs to be seen to be an effective part of the process to restore the public confidence which the whole planning system should earn. At one meeting there was almost an air of competition to see which area could out-perform the others. One enforcement case is older than the District Council trying to enforce the removal of a scrap-yard. There was only one real example of a development being substantially altered as a result of enforcement, in all other cases it appeared to be a charter for the non-compliant.

Peter W Lacey

County Secretary

17 March 2002

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