The number of national infrastructure projects that will be fast-tracked through the planning system is a cause for concern, says the chairman of the Local Government Association.
The planning bill, which will pass through the Lords this year, allows big projects to be waved through if they are approved by a new infrastructure planning commission. But Sir Simon Milton told the FT that more than 40 projects ranging from trunk roads to wind farms had been put forward by the government – more than the “single figure” number that would be appropriate.
The LGA is urging the government to tighten up the wording of the bill.
“We appreciate that major strategic planning decisions like [Heathrow’s] Terminal 5 can get bogged down for years and years in the process,” said Sir Simon. “We have said OK with respect to airports and nuclear power stations, but we believe the definition is far too loose.”
He said the introduction of 10 new eco-towns further undermined councils be-cause they would be ex-cluded from their local plans. He revealed that ministers had intended to give planning powers over the eco-towns to the Homes and Communities Agency, a new government arm, which would have bypassed councils. “We kicked up such a fuss about it that they withdrew.”
Councils are worried they could take a lesser role in drawing up regional strategies under changes ann-ounced last month. Previously, councils – via regional assemblies – would draw up spatial strategies while regional development agencies would create economic strategies. Now, with the imminent abolition of assemblies, the RDAs will write single regional strategies, albeit with council input.
“When you look at all these issues together you find the government is slowly building up alternative approval mechanisms,” said Sir Simon. “All the time we are seeing a government which essentially wants to find ways to bypass local government on planning.”
The government disputed the claims, saying the planning bill included the first statutory duty on developers to consult local communities. The “overwhelming majority” of projects would have been considered by ministers under the current system. And every eco-town would be subject to the local planning application process, said the Department of Communities and Local Government.
By Jim Pickard, Political Correspondent
15 April 2008
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