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FALCONER SEEKS TO REASSURE COUNTIES

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By LGC parliamentary correspondent Tariq Tahir ...
By LGC parliamentary correspondent Tariq Tahir

County councils will still play an important role the planning system after it is shaken up, Lord Falconer has said.

In an exclusive interview with LGC, the housing, planning and regeneration minister set out his views on the role districts and counties will play in the new system.

Though committed to doing away with the structure plan, Lord Falconer has sought to reassure counties their expertise will be put to good use.

The minister said councils will have 70% of the seats on the new regional planning bodies outlined in last year's green paper.

He confirmed there would be no white paper on planning, with a policy statement issued followed by legislation later this year.

Responding to critics of the green paper, such as the Council for the Protection of Rural England which claims getting rid of the structure plan will rob local people and councils of a voice in decisions, Lord Falconer said such arguments are 'not are well founded in the facts'.

'If you don't remove one tier, you end up with the system being just as complicated as it has always been. I don't think they [critics of the green paper] would disagree that the structure plan has to go.

'Take the issue of housing, which is a really important issue in the south- east. If the counties disagree with the regional planning guidance, you end up with stalemate and in certain parts of the south-east that's the way it's heading.

'Everybody would agree with the proposition that the counties aren't, in every case, the best administrative arrangement for strategic planning.

'I don't believe that the complications which come from the structure plans are justified by the good they bring.'

But he said he will take on board comments on the roles of counties which he has received during the recently ended consultation period on the green paper.

'I think there is a role for counties because they have lots and lots of expert structural planners,' he said.

'Precisely what their role will be, whether it be contributing to sub-regional or regional, or contributing to the local development framework or a bit of both is something which needs to be considered in the light of the very substantial response we have received to the green paper.'

The minister said he has been in 'conversation' with the Local Government Association about counties working, in effect, with districts to draw up the development framework.

'I'm not sure the districts and the County Councils Network have the same view however,' he said. 'Having spoken to a wide range of local authority representatives, different views come back.

'I would like to make it clear that they have expertise that they can bring to the process. But what I'm not keen on - and I want to make this absolutely clear - is for county structure plans to continue.'

Lord Falconer said it was 'very, very important the new regional planning bodies have some legitimacy' in parts of the country without elected assemblies.

The regional bodies need to have an elected element 'to a substantial degree' in the form of councils.

'If it is made up of say 70% elected local authority representatives, from county and district, and the rest from the business, community and voluntary sectors I think that would give it adequate legitimacy.'

On major infrastructure projects, Lord Falconer pledged MPs would not be whipped into supporting schemes, even if they were supported by the government.

'It would probably be appropriate for those infrastructure projects for the vote that Parliament took on it, in both Houses, to be a free vote,' he said.

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