Huge plans for the Severn Barrage and major wind farms across the Westcountry could be approved by planners in less than a year under Government plans to speed up eco-projects.
Instead of controversial proposals becoming log-jammed in the legal system for anything up to a decade, they could get the green light within just 49 weeks, Communities Secretary Hazel Blears said yesterday.
The Planning Reform Bill will introduce measures to streamline the planning regime, including creating a new planning quango which will take decisions on major applications.
But critics fear the move will lead to a “serious erosion of democracy” and proper checks and balances need to be retained. Some have claimed the Bill will exclude local people from the planning process and could push through projects which will have a detrimental effect on the fight against global warming.
Ms Blears said the aim is to cut lengthy planning decision delays down to less than a year, saving some £300 million a year, or £5 billion by 2030, the Government said. There are said to be around 75 wind farms held up in the planning stage, with some taking between seven and ten years to be given approval.
Under the Bill, planning permission will no longer be required for people wanting to install small-scale renewable power sources such as solar panels and wind turbines, provided they do not affect their neighbours. Similar measures will cut red tape for building loft conversions and conservatories.
But it is the plan to fast track huge projects like the Severn barrage which has attracted criticism. The Government has previously hailed the proposed ten-mile dam stretching from the Somerset coast to South Wales as potentially as significant as the Channel Tunnel.
But the South West Wildlife Trusts have voiced “severe concerns” about the barrage plan, including questioning whether it is the most cost-effective and carbon effective way to produce renewable energy. The Trusts warned the unique habitats of the Severn Estuary would be “irreparably damaged” by such a large infrastructure project.
The Renewable Energy Foundation also raised concerns. John Constable, director of policy and research at the REF, warned the plan could lead to “a serious erosion of democracy”.
And the Campaign to Protect Rural England is concerned the Bill will cut the public out of the planning process and could help push through new airports, roads and power stations.
By Matt Chorley
28 November 2007
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