The biggest planning shake-up for 20 years will be unveiled by the government today amid concerns that it could pave the way for more nuclear power stations, airport runways and housing estates.
The proposals would see the final decision on major planning projects taken by an independent commission rather then ministers.
Red tape for people wanting to carry out simple home improvements such as adding a conservatory, converting a loft, or installing wind turbines, would also be slashed.
The communities secretary, Ruth Kelly, insists the aim of the white paper is to make the planning system simpler and more accessible for everyone.
Officials claim it could save more than £1bn within a decade by incorporating the current eight separate planning systems into one.
However, organisations such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and Friends of the Earth have warned that the measures could also result in a bias towards permitting controversial major developments.
The independent planning commission – made up of experts including planners, lawyers and environmentalists – will operate within a framework created by ministers.
There are fears these rules may be skewed towards the economic benefits of applications such as extra airport runways or nuclear plants, rather than the potential harm they cause to communities.
The commission could then be obliged to approve unpopular plans, while politicians distance themselves from the decisions by claiming they were taken independently.
Many of the proposals in the white paper stem from the 2006 review of land planning Use published by economist Kate Barker – an adviser to the chancellor, Gordon Brown.
That document suggested easing restrictions on use of green belt land in order to free up space for housing.
However, it is understood that ministers will renew their commitment to protect the green belt, stressing that so-called brownfield sites are still the priority for development.
A Department for Communities and Local Government source said: “We want a system that is both simpler but where communities have a greater say – that is what our reforms aim to deliver.”
Ms Kelly said there was a need to streamline the planning process while ensuring that the public was “locked in” at every stage.
“If you take a major infrastructure project like Terminal 5 at Heathrow, that took seven years to go through the planning application process,” she told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“It had to be considered under 37 different applications, seven different pieces of legislation. Local people find that an incredibly difficult system to manage.
“I would argue that it favours the well-resourced and people who can afford to pay professional lawyers.”
21 May 2007
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