A major shake-up in the planning system has been unveiled which will speed up controversial proposals for nuclear power stations, waste incinerators, motorways, windfarms and other large projects.
Under the proposals, decisions on individual applications would be taken by a new independent Planning Commission after full consultation.
The call for key changes aimed at reducing current hold ups in the planning process comes from economist Kate Barker, a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee.
Her Land Use Planning report says business, developers and communities face high costs when the planning system is unnecessarily slow, unpredictable, expensive and bureaucratic.
The green belt, which has strict controls on housing estates, has for decades acted as a “corset” around London and other cities.
The Barker Report says development should take place in locations that are best from an environmental perspective, where this is near existing towns and cities, and green belt boundaries should be reviewed by regional and local planning authorities to limit the increased emissions and pollution caused by commuters “jumping” the green belt.
Ms Barker was asked to comment on criticism that local communities will feel that their fears about big schemes on their doorsteps could be “steamrollered” by the new Planning Commission.
She told a news conference at the Treasury in London: “We know there is a fundamental difficulty. We know that we need to have things in the UK placed somewhere like large energy projects, waste projects.
“We know that these are the kind of developments that communities, at first sight, are not likely to welcome near them.
“Equally it is in the national interest that these are proposed and provided somewhere.”
She said that ministers would express an “up front” view of why these projects are needed, in a statement.
“That would be after considerable public consultation. We are not recommending that Government just produces this out of a hat… when it came to the cases that the independent Planning Commission would consider, they would consider whether this was the right place.
“It certainly is not going to remove all the difficulties… but the principle is that ministers are clear about what they want to achieve in these areas and it is the job of the Commission to decide whether the application is of sufficient quality and has dealt with local issues sufficiently well, to be allowed to proceed.
“The Commission will not command credibility if it is the perception that its answer is always going to be ‘Yes’.
“It has to be possible that on consideration of the local issues put to it that it will say this application just doesn’t stand up.”
Responding to Kate Barker’s final report on the Land Use Planning System in England, Adam Sampson, chief executive of Shelter said: “With spiraling house prices and a chronic shortage of social homes, Barker’s proposal to speed up the planning process should make it easier to build the homes and infrastructure in England we so desperately need.
“Some try to scaremonger that this will mean concreting over our beautiful countryside which simply isn’t true. In her first report to Treasury, Barker herself estimated that if we built more homes than currently planned in the South East, for example, we would still only use less than 1% of total land in that region.
“With one in seven children trapped in bad housing, speeding up the planning processes to enable us to build more homes won’t mean the end for our countryside – but it will mean a brighter future for these children.”
The Barker Report also calls for improvements in the local plan making processes, so schemes can be drawn up in 18-24 months and not the current 36-42 months. This could save local authorities £100 million over a three year period.
:: A more risk-based and proportionate approach to regulation, with significant reduction in the paperwork needed to support applications. This would reduce private sector planning fees (over £200 million a year) and consultancy fees (over £300 million a year).
:: Greater certainty of timescales with new, individually tailored delivery agreements between planning authorities and developers.
:: Faster processing of appeals: from 2008/09 all appeals should take place within six months, and the use of a new Planning Mediation Service to resolve disputes outside of appeal proceedings.
:: A significant reduction in the number of cases suffering delays due to Ministerial call-in, with 50% fewer calls-ins from 2007.
The report also calls for more flexibility to support sustainable economic growth for the 300,000 business applications a year.
This includes allowing minor changes to commercial premises, including the use of micro-generation technology such as small wind turbines and solar panels-to proceed without requiring planning permission.
The Barker Report also recommends updating planning policy guidance on economic development for the first time in 14 years, to clarify that the full account of the economic benefits of development applications should be taken in decision making.
With the population forecast to rise, the report calls for a high proportion of new development into towns and urban areas through support for the town centre first policy and use of fiscal policy to encourage empty property to be put into use and to give greater incentives for the use of vacant previously developed land.
There should be greater mixed use designations in plans and a more positive approach to applications for change of use to reflect the changing needs of the UK’s flexible, service-based economy.
Friends of the Earth warned that the Barker recommendations would give business and supermarket chains a bigger say in the decision making process and have a “devastating impact on the environment and local democracy”.
FoE planning adviser Hugh Ellis said: “Local communities will be the big loser if the Barker Review is implemented. Barker’s vision of uncontrolled development will mean communities have little or no say in how their local area is developed.
“The Government must ensure that people have a say on the future of their communities and their environment.”
Faraz Baber, director of planning and regeneration at the British Property Federation, said: “We are delighted about the growing recognition of the need to rethink how the planning system can deliver major projects in a timely manner.
“The current system adopted in the 2004 Planning Act is still taking time to bed-in within many local and regional authorities and it is still unlikely to provide for delivering a planning process to cater for many projects without encountering lengthy delays.
“The call for a planning commission to deal with major infrastructure is in line with recent intimation from the Prime Minister and the announcement of a planning reform White Paper at the Queen’s Speech, to assess how planning applications are dealt with for energy projects and major infrastructure schemes.
“We hope the Government will heed our calls to extend these reforms with a handful of major schemes that require an equal level of strategic decision making from the planning system.”
Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly said: “Kate Barker’s final report makes clear that planning is a valued and necessary activity that can deliver positive economic outcomes, alongside important social and environmental objectives.
“We have already introduced substantial reforms to the planning system to speed up the plan-making process and most recently to planning for housing as a result of Kate Barker’s first report.
“We will also shortly publish a new draft Planning Policy Statement on climate change to help reduce carbon emissions.
“The Government welcomes Kate Barker’s report, which we will take forward, and agrees with her overall analysis.
“We will set out in a White Paper in spring 2007 our proposals in response to her recommendations for improving the speed, responsiveness and efficiency of land use planning and for taking forward Kate Barker’s and Rod Eddington’s proposals for reform of major infrastructure planning.
“In the meantime, the Government will be interested to hear responses to the report.”
Sir Rod Eddington, whose transport study was published last week, said: “Kate Barker’s report, released today, has identified the same problems of delay, uncertainty and cost for the planning system for major infrastructure projects that I identified for many transport projects last week.
“I am very pleased that her recommendations support my own conclusions about the changes that need to be made to the planning system to ensure that the UK can continue to compete effectively, while ensuring that the planning process remains fair and thorough.”
Roger Humber, strategic policy adviser to the House Builders Association, part of the National Federation of Builders, said: “Barker clearly points the finger of blame at Government so-called reforms and over-complication of the system, which dates back to the last overhaul in 2004.
“The excessive amount of information that Government itself has now imposed on applicants for planning permission, plus the over-wrought local plan system, must now be re-examined urgently.
“We hope that this latest review will concentrate on delivering policies that will release more land for development.
“There have been too many restrictive policy notations, over and above Green Belt.
“Unless these are either removed or simplified, it will be impossible to identify land for additional housebuilding in areas of high demand, particularly in the South of England.”
David Frost, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “An independent national body to oversee large-scale development projects is an idea whose time has come.
“Infrastructure in the UK is being held back due to the difficulties in developing on land that is protected for seemingly no good reason.
“Of course the Green Belt should not be destroyed but we cannot let outmoded views on development stifle economic growth.
“For large-scale transport projects it is imperative that someone can take a strategic overview and not allow Nimby (not in my back yard) arguments stand in the way.
“The lack of progress in developing a runway at Heathrow and the slow movement on widening the M6 stand testament to the damage that our existing planning laws are creating.
“We are concerned, however, about apparent proposals on any Planning Gain Supplement. If it is to be introduced, we would urge the Government to allow the allocation of funds raised to be issued at a local level rather than be absorbed into a central pot.
“Section 106 agreements, however, are already delivering infrastructure improvements at the local area so the Government must not just simply add another layer of costs on to developments through a PGS.”
Roger Culcheth, Federation of Small Businesses local government chairman, said: “Kate Barker’s review is good news for small businesses that find themselves mired in the bureaucracy and red tape of long, drawn-out planning applications.
“Proposals that make the process of expanding and developing small business premises easier and faster will be of great benefit to local communities and the economy as a whole.
“However, any changes must not give a green light to supermarkets to ride roughshod over legitimate local concerns about large-scale developments.”
David Fursdon, president of the Country Land & Business Association, said: “This report is a breath of fresh air and a radical review of what is currently a dysfunctional planning system.
“We at the CLA have been saying for years that rural areas need employment opportunities as well as housing and this report acknowledges that rural communities are no different from urban ones in that they need to have a wide range of economic activity if they are to thrive.
“Clearly Kate Barker has listened to the CLA. She has quoted us directly and taken on board our plea that economic growth should have a seat at the table together with social and environmental factors and this holds out hope for thriving rather than fossilised rural communities.
“We are also delighted to see that she understands that a heritage policy in this country must allow the sensitive modernisation of historic buildings while also being responsive to economic factors.
“We welcome many of the recommendations contained in this report and look forward to the Planning Reform Bill White Paper in 2007.”
Chairman of the Local Government Association, Lord Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, said: “Barker has recognised that the time is up for a centrally-controlled planning system and the answer is decisions made locally. Councillors working with their communities are best placed to create attractive places with more jobs and more and better designed homes. These will be the benefits of less interference by ministers in planning issues which have no implications beyond council boundaries.
“Barker has backed our proposals that homeowners should be able to build loft conversions, conservatories and kitchen extensions without getting bogged down in unnecessary planning red tape. But now the government must also confirm that it is going to cut centrally-imposed building regulations as well.
“Councils support Barker’s commitment to protecting and enhancing green spaces in our towns, cities and the countryside. But reassessing greenbelt boundaries will not solve the shortage of new homes in practice. These are not being held back by a lack of land but rather by a shortage of funding for transport, roads and community infrastructure.”
“Barker has accepted that it is the government’s own national planning enquiries which have been holding back development. Any new system must safeguard councils’ abilities to speak up on behalf of local people and the villages, towns and cities they represent.”
Liberal Democrat Shadow Local Government Secretary, Andrew Stunell MP said: “Any changes to the planning system must put the local community at the heart of development decisions.
“These changes to the planning laws are long overdue. People are faced with too many hurdles when they want to undertake simple extensions and conversions.
“Power over where and how many houses should be built should not be handed to another unaccountable quango. The real answer is to give power back to local communities to ensure they benefit from developments. A local income tax and re-localisation of business rates would empower town halls to better serve their communities.
“Establishing a national planning body to help implement major infrastructure projects like airports and rail networks is a welcome move – indeed it seems to be based on Liberal Democrat policy, but this should not include housing developments.”
Publisher: Ian Morgan
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