The Government has backed down on controversial measures in its Planning Reform Bill by giving local people the right to be heard when considering major projects such as runways and nuclear power stations.
The concession is that the Independent Planning Commission set up by the Bill and staffed with Government appointees will be able to hold oral hearings into controversial projects.
However, conservationists said that this still does not go far enough for them. They want guarantees that developers can be cross-examined at the discretion of the Commission.
They say without cross examination the need for a new project cannot be tested, as was the need for a port at Dibden Bay, near Southampton, which led to the project being turned down.
Another major concession that emerged with the publication of the Bill, which is intended to speed up the planning system for major infrastructure projects by taking them out of the public inquiry process, in that there may be “exceptional circumstances” where ministers may take back the right to make decisions on major projects from the Commission of appointed officials.
The occasion when this might happen is thought to be when national policy statements, which are to be devised on such matters as energy, aviation and road transport, are out of date.
The Commission is to be given the discretion to act on all exceptional details and local circumstances instead of forcing things through. There will also have to be a “sustainability appraisal” of the national policy statements.
This is believed to be an attempt to get round legal opinions commissioned by conservationists which say that national policy statements are liable to challenge under European law.
As expected, the Bill will allow loft conversions to go ahead without planning permission, provided the top stays at existing roof level. However, neighbours may find that the change will mean that they find it hard to object to attic conversions which encroach on their privacy or block light to their homes.
Owen Espley, co-ordinator of a coalition of environmental groups including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said the Government’s determination to press ahead despite 32,000 indivudual responses to a consultation in the summer suggested that the Government “is not interested in being fully accountable for major decisions.
“We are also concerned that the right to be heard is limited – hardly encouraging when the planning process should be about listening to and taking account of the views of individuals and communities, and ensuring that all the evidence is fully examined.”
Naomi Luhde-Thompson of Friends of the Earth said: “The Planning Bill will not tackle climate change as Hazel Blears would have us believe. It will fast track roads, airports and incinerators – substantially adding to the UKs carbon footprint.
“While we welcome moves to simplify the planning system for major infrastructure projects the Government must ensure these projects reduce, not add to, carbon emissions. Planning commissioners, who will make decisions on major projects, must be accountable to Government and public inquiries must give people a real opportunity to have their views heard. ”
John Cridland, deputy director-general of the CBI, said: “The planning system has fallen into a state of disrepair and is now in need of a major overhaul.
“If the UK is to meet its economic and environmental objectives, including developing new green energy sources, the planning bill needs to deliver a swift and efficient service, whilst giving all interested parties a fair hearing.”
By Charles Clover, Environment Editor
27 November 2007
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