This year we awarded £3.1 million to four organisations to help communities to make progress with their plans. We fund the new burdens that local authorities may face, and my Department works closely with many neighbourhood planning areas. As a result, communities are making progress, and the first neighbourhood development plan passed an independent examination last week.
We want to encourage as many communities as possible, both urban and rural, to embrace neighbourhood planning. Only this morning I met a dozen neighbourhood planning groups in London, and I shall be visiting more groups throughout the country in the new year. Local authorities are responsible for providing information and support, and my officials are available at any time to answer questions and offer guidance to anyone who is interested in going down this road.
May I return the Minister to the issue of support for town centres? Does he accept that by including business and commercial projects in the major infrastructure regime, we risk repeating some of the planning mistakes of the 1980s, and allowing a free-for-all for developments on the edges of and outside town centres at the expense of the viability of our town centres?
I do not accept that at all. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have specifically said that we will exclude retail developments from the category of business and commercial schemes that might be subject to the major infrastructure regime. Town Centre First means something to this Government, unlike the last one.
My constituents Andy Faulkner and Deborah Robinson are members of a committee in the village of Yapton, in my constituency, which is putting together a Yapton neighbourhood plan. They are worried about whether the huge effort and time spent by volunteers, and the expense involved in putting the plan together, will prove worth while. When a decision is to be made on a planning application, what weight will be given to the Yapton neighbourhood plan when it is in final draft form but the local plan has not yet been finalised and confirmed?
I thank my hon. Friend for asking that question, because it is useful to be able to clarify the position for not just Yapton but other communities. It is important for people to understand that the weight given to an emerging neighbourhood plan is in no way contingent on the status of the local plan, and that there is nothing to prevent them from making progress as rapidly as possible.
As a result of huge cuts in local authority budgets, councils’ spending on planning has fallen by 16% and the reduction is likely to reach 25% in the next few years. How will the Minister ensure that funds are available for neighbourhood planning in all areas—including those that are disadvantaged—from 2013 onwards, so that the Government’s commitment to localism is not watered down further ?
I am sure the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that the Department is offering local authorities £30,000 for every plan produced in their area. Some £5,000 of that becomes available when a neighbourhood forum is designated, and £25,000 becomes available once a plan has been examined, to pay for the cost of examination and the referendum. There is currently a limit on the number of plans that can receive this funding in any given area, but I hope to be able to adjust that limit to ensure we do not constrain further support for neighbourhood plans.