§ Mr. David Drew (Stroud)
I am delighted to have a second opportunity to talk about the future of parish and town councils following a debate that I initiated just over a year ago. I shall not speak for long because 1 know that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) would also like to speak. We should like to respond to a campaign launched by the official Opposition to say that the Government are attempting to abolish parish and town councils. As we are both councillors, we hope to put across the authentic voice of local councillors today. I should also like to put a positive slant on what these councils do and can do.
It first came to my notice some weeks ago that it was being suggested that the Government were considering abolishing these councils. That came as a shock to me as someone who continues to sit on Stonehouse town council in my constituency. The Stroud Conservative association has organised a conference this weekend to consider local government and the environment. I have no problem with that, but it has sent out a letter, which starts:Government Threat to Abolish Parish Councils and Town CouncilsAs you may know the Government is currently considering whether to abolish Parish Councils. It has been suggested that 'neighbourhood forums' will replace them.'Neighbourhood forums' are meetings where any resident can attend to talk about local issues and make comments and suggestions about any council service. This would be the end of representative democracy and accountability at this most local level. Furthermore, too many—indeed most—might not feel able or willing to attend such meetings and they would therefore lose their democratic voice.That is an example of some of the nonsense that is being put abroad. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can confirm that that is not the case and that we can look forward to enhanced powers at this, the first, not the lowest, level of democracy.
The campaign may emanate from some of the press coverage given to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment at the last Labour party conference. I went to all the conference gatherings that he attended and he made three speeches that related to this area. Unless I was at different meetings, on no occasion did I hear him talk about abolishing parish councils. He talked about some of the problems, such as getting people to stand and to take their due responsibility and the ways in which parish councils could be more effective by working together. That is something with which I would totally concur. On no occasion did I hear him say, "We intend to abolish parish councils." Again, I wonder where the idea came from.
I am not against the idea of neighbourhood forums as they may have their place. In urban areas, where there is under-representation because of the lack of local councils, it may be a way forward, but I see this as an enhancement, not a denigration, of local councils. Everyone from the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister downwards has said that there is no truth in the story. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has commented on the Government's views on 183WH local councils and I am sure that she will speak for herself later. I am using this Adjournment debate to set the record straight and to look positively at the issue.
For good or ill, the Government have created an additional 50 parish councils since coming to power in 1997, which demonstrates their interest in this area and suggests that they want to increase the number rather than reduce it. I will now deal with the positive agenda. During my 13 years as a parish councillor, I have realised that parish councils can be a source of considerable local activity and continual local good. We await the rural White Paper, which I hope will cover local government in rural areas—not only parish councils, but representation in general. It would be good if the Minister could tease out some of the themes that will be in the White Paper.
In my previous Adjournment debate on this topic, we discussed planning and village blueprints as ways for local people to take responsibility for how their communities evolve. There is no better way to achieve that than through the operation of local councils. I am eternally grateful to my good friend Stephen Wright, from the Gloucestershire rural community council, who has frequently suggested countryside stewardship to me as a way of examining how parish councils can enhance their powers and integrate their activities. By providing a parish blueprint, councils can ensure that they maximise their powers. In my previous speech, I made the argument—in which I still strongly believe—that parish councils often do not appreciate the full value of the powers available to them, whether through section 137 and the so-called penny rate or through training and education, by means of which they can lead their communities. Countryside stewardship has now been taken up by the Countryside Agency, so I flag it up as relevant.
It is important to consider enhancing the roles of clerks and councillors to ensure that they can perform the full range of tasks available to them. I wholeheartedly congratulate the Cheltenham and Gloucester college of higher education on its courses for new parish clerks and councillors, which inform them of the opportunities of which they may take advantage. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister can set out additional ways in which we can offer training to new and existing parish clerks and councillors, so that they can tackle the challenges that face them.
I would like to identify the relationship between neighbourhood forums and parish councils, because it is clear that those are different bodies and not alternatives. It would be good to know what ideas the Government have for neighbourhood forums and how they may further enhance the first rung of local democracy. I do not see those bodies as a challenge, because they could work in some places by helping parish councils to operate in an integrated manner.
Problems clearly affect this local rung of democracy. I have mentioned that there may be unwillingness to use the powers that exist in statute, and that using such powers should perhaps be encouraged or made the subject of review. I have talked about auditing arrangements at length and my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning has responded. They are still a cause for concern, but I gather that there has been some progress. The same applies to best value and how it is bedding down in this first rung of democracy.
184WH There is a debate about how we should situate parish and town councils in the wider reform of local government. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will mention that and that the Government will state categorically that they see an important role for those councils, as those of us who are involved in them do. The more that can be done to make that view apparent, the better.
I should like to put on record how important I found my involvement with local councils. All Labour Members have always welcomed the opportunity to talk to parish councils and many of us who represent constituencies with many such councils try to get out and about to do so. I commend Stroud town council for the work that it has done on its local plan analysis, which has been important in drafting the district's overall local plan, and Dursley town council for the work that it has done in setting up its town centre partnership. Those are examples of the good work that town councils can do. Leonard Stanley parish council has led the attempts to reopen the village post office. I could cite many other similar examples.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will clarify the position and confirm that parish councils have not only a past and a present but a strong future and that they will be developed in many different ways.
§ Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)
I congratulate my hon. Friend—and fellow parish councillor—the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who was elected on the same day as me in May 1997, on securing this debate. I am immensely encouraged because my hon. Friend the Minister has replied positively to the questions on the future of parish and town councils that I have asked her, and now is the appropriate time to underline the current position.
I was lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, during the first of this morning's debates on protecting endangered species. I believe that there is no link between that debate and this one, because parish councils still have much to offer.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam)
Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not implying that I am the link.
§ Mr. Taylor
There is no link between the two debates, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
My fact-finding visits to all but two of the 25 parish councils in North-West Leicestershire have convinced me that, as my hon. Friend has said, they are not the lowest tier of democracy; they are its front line in rural areas. At their best, they can respond quickly, as they have done in rundown mining areas, where they have initiated economic regeneration and environmental restoration projects and tackled problems of social cohesion.
Parish councils can do an awful lot and have much to offer. They are the starting point for citizenship and political inclusion in areas that sometimes feel remote from the county halls or the local council offices of this world. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us, and that the rural White Paper will make it clear, that community councils will not become mere consultative 185WH groups. I welcome the possibility of creating rural forums, but they should be complementary to parish councils, which should continue to be independent and elected and have real powers. I suggest an additional power: a right of appeal against certain contentious planning permissions granted by planning authorities. Such a power is long overdue.
I share the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that it is a great pity that the countryside lobby has attempted to hijack parish councils; it has falsely claimed that our policies threaten parish councils. It is not Panglossian to suggest that most parish councils do an exceptionally good job and are responsible, accountable and efficient. There are problems, but we can tackle them and revive democracy in those areas where it has perhaps lapsed in recent times. At their best, parish councils are active and self-confident community leaders. Their role and influence could, and should, be extended.
I am sufficiently confident about the Government's priorities in such matters to expect a positive view of the role of parish councils in my hon. Friend the Minister's reply and in the rural White Paper. The Government have ideas about how parish councils' powers might be extended and how to transfer best practice to other parts of the country. I am proud to be a parish councillor and hope that I shall long have that role, perhaps in parallel with my role as a Member of Parliament—but that remains to be seen. Parish councillors such as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and I, as well as others who are interested in the Minister's comments, look forward to some reassurance. I hope that we can lay to rest the canard that has sprung up—if that is not mixing three metaphors.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)
In replying to an Adjournment debate, it is customary to thank the hon. Member who secured it. I always give such thanks sincerely, but on this occasion I do so with particular sincerity because my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) has not only enabled this important issue to be aired but, in the light of certain press reports and the use in recent months of parish councils as a political football by various bodies, including the Conservative party, enabled us to make clear our record on and proposals for parish and town councils and scotch completely the wholly unfounded rumours that have been circulated for political ends.
I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments on speeches made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment at various fringe meetings. My hon. Friend was in attendance and can testify that subsequent press reports were inaccurate, to say the least. That is extremely helpful and reflects my right hon. Friend's repeated comments on what was said at those meetings.
In some ways, I am a little surprised that the media and various lobbies continue to suggest that the Government are planning to abolish parish councils. As my hon. Friends have noted, my colleagues and I have stated in Parliament and in numerous items of ministerial correspondence that the Government have 186WH no plans to abolish town and parish councils. My right hon. Friend has made the same point in the national press. I hesitate to say, "Read my lips", although I could, because the statement is absolutely true. My hon. Friends speak from considerable personal experience, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud is a parish councillor and vice-president of the National Association of Local Councils, an organisation with which the Government have a good relationship, and my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) is also a parish councillor of long standing.
Our policy on parish and town councils was set out in the White Paper "Modern Local Government: In Touch With the People". It stated that parish councils arean essential part of the structure of local democracy in this countryandwill continue to play a key role in many of our towns and villages.That is our policy.
In setting the record straight on that policy, we should explain our record and our intentions. Our commitment to the parish tier of local government is demonstrated by the creation of 62 parish councils since we came to power. In the past nine months, it has been my pleasure to sign many orders that created those parish councils. Moreover, we propose to create a further 22 parishes in the next few months. In the first three years of this Government, we expect to have created between 80 and 85 new parish councils. That record speaks for itself, in terms of our commitment to existing parish councils and the future of parish and town councils. I should make it clear that, as far as the Government are concerned, dynamic parish and town councils have a key role in the democratic constitution of this country.
My hon. Friends raised our local government modernisation agenda and I shall make a few comments on how parish councils will fit into that. They represent the tier of government closest to the citizen. They are in touch with people and with how they live their lives. I take the point that this is not an issue for rural areas only. There is a town council in my very metropolitan urban constituency in Manchester.
However, the pattern of life in rural areas is changing rapidly and parish councils must be flexible to cope with that change. They must be free of old-fashioned, rigid working practices; they must put people first. They have many strengths and traditional values on which we need to build, but there is scope for development. There is no room for complacency at any level of local government. Too many local councillors are elected unopposed and too few people vote in local elections.
Our response is not that we see no future role for parish and town councils but that their role will be very important. We need to develop and strengthen their potential because of their position in the democratic structure as a voice for local people. We must strengthen the democratic link between parish councillors and the people who elect them. That is why the White Paper on local government is so relevant to town and parish councils.
Many other provisions that we have introduced, as well as those in proposed new legislation, are relevant to parish councils. The duty of best value will apply only to the larger parish and town councils, but we want all councils to adopt its spirit because they also play an important role in delivering local services. That spirit is 187WH embodied in the drive for continual improvement in local services and is a way in which councils at all levels—especially parish councils—can demonstrate to local people their ability to provide services and to strengthen that democratic link.
There are provisions in the new Local Government Bill for a new ethical framework for parish councils. We have listened carefully to parish councils while drawing up those provisions. The councils will be subject to a uniform national code of conduct that all councillors must endorse. That will not demand more, unnecessarily, from parish councillors, but will tell them that they are as important as the other elements of the democratic local government structure. The issues about transparency and demonstrating ethical standards must therefore apply equally to them. We want parish councils to embrace those new ethical standards.
My hon. Friends wanted me to comment on neighbourhood forums, because of the way in which the possibility of their introduction has been used to argue that the Government intend to abolish parish councils. We have no such intention. We are keen to increase community participation in decision making at all levels. That is the core of our aim in strengthening local democracy. Neighbourhood forums may be a way of achieving that in some areas, but we do not intend them to take the place of parish councils.
Parish councils should be at the forefront of identifying their local community's needs and priorities, working in partnership with other bodies in helping to implement innovative, locally determined solutions to local problems. A parish council that is modern in outook, involving local people, will be impossible to ignore. Modern district and county councils need to work with modern partners. Neighbourhood forums may be an option for areas that do not have that layer of local governance. However, in areas that have parish and town councils, those councils fulfil that function more than satisfactorily.
It is not our policy to bring in something new to replace parish councils. Rather, we are considering whether a different forum might provide people living in areas that do not have that level of governance with what those with parish councils already have. It is an addition, an extension, an enhancement, not a replacement.
My hon. Friends particularly wanted me to comment on the rural White Paper. We have consulted widely with parish councils and their representatives on how parish councils can be a focus, particularly for rural communities, and play their part in every aspect of rural governance.
We want the preparation of the rural White Paper to be an inclusive process. In February 1999, we issued a consultation document on rural England, which posed questions on a wide range of rural issues. More than 100 parishes or parish associations responded to that document, and many other responses referred to the role of parish and town councils in developing our policy. It was a consistent view that local people should be 188WH consulted on policy development and be more closely involved in decision making and in implementing decisions. Many saw parish councils as a neglected resource and felt that they could play a bigger part in representing local interests. They also thought that there was scope for councils to work more closely with other bodies, to take on more service delivery and to have greater powers and bigger budgets.
Concerns were expressed about the accountability of parish councils. This goes back to my point about bringing all parish councils up to the standard of the best to strengthen local democracy. There were also queries about the competence of parish councils and to what extent they were representative of their communities. Some of the responses touched on the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud about the need for training and development for councillors, as well as for clerks and other officers.
We are considering the responses. In preparing the rural White Paper, we are actively considering how we can build into those proposals not only the issues raised during the consultation exercise but the enhanced role that parish councils can play in meeting the White Paper's overall objectives—rural regeneration and improving the quality of life.
I was interested in my hon. Friend's concept of community stewardship, which is something that we are considering and trying to unpack. However, we believe that parishes have now, and will have, a key role to play in many towns and villages as part of the framework to improve the quality of life and achieve regeneration, together with other agents and councils.
An important strength of parish councils is their ability to be a voice for local people. As I have said, this issue runs through the foundation of our modernisation agenda for local government and will be a theme of the rural and urban White Papers. They will set out the building blocks that local areas will need to develop their own priorities and regeneration plans, starting with local views on the problems in their areas and carrying through to implementing the solutions to those problems.
I hope that I have satisfactorily addressed the core issue of this debate, which has clarified the Government's long-stated and often-repeated commitment to the future of parish town councils. We see them as not only playing a general role in future but as a key agent in implementing some of the changes that the Government are trying to introduce to strengthen local governance and to regenerate rural and urban areas. The content of the rural White Paper will become clearer in the summer. I cannot give my hon. Friends detailed proposals on the roles for town and parish councils or other councils, but they are under active consideration and the White Paper will deal with them in detail.
Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friends for providing the opportunity to debate this matter. I hope that I have reassured them and the wider audience of our commitment to parish and town councils.
§ It being One o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.