Ministers are plotting to “crash the planning process” for their new eco-towns, restricting the opportunity for residents to object, according to the government’s own expert adviser.
Professor David Lock claims the communities department wants to fast-track the towns, intended to provide environmentally friendly housing. This is despite the government’s public declaration that normal procedures will be followed.
Lock claims Caroline Flint, the housing minister, wants to “cut out a whole lot of processes” to ensure that five of the towns are completed by 2016.
If the fast-track approach, which Lock backs, is not followed, he argues it could take 10 years just to overcome initial planning hurdles.
His disclosure will anger those who fear the developments will be imposed by Whitehall with little regard for due process or local opinion. They complain that, while the developments claim to be environmentally friendly, many of them are simply “greenwashed” old housing schemes rejected years ago.
Lock, who chairs the Town and Country Planning Association, made his comments after a meeting with officials at the communities department last week.
Ministers have shortlisted 15 possible sites for eco-towns of at least 5,000 houses each, in areas including Oxfordshire and near Stratford-Upon-Avon, Warwickshire, to help address the housing shortage.
Last month Flint told The Sunday Times that normal planning procedures for the towns would apply – “no ifs or buts”. However, Lock said: “They want to collapse the process and go faster. Certainly the government is trying to cut short the planning process.
“She [Flint] cannot cut out those processes that come from the [European Union]. What she can cut out, and has said she wants to cut out, are all the preliminary policy frameworks, at local and regional level, which can take seven to 10 years.”
Lock said bypassing these preliminary frameworks would “cut out the need for local and regional debates, crash it from the top, if you like”. He said he agreed with this approach and urged ministers to be “more open” as well as doing more to sell the attributes of eco-towns.
He admitted any failure to follow normal procedures to the letter would create a backlash: “Of course it will upset people.” Among the options being discussed, according to Lock, is taking responsibility for scrutinising individual eco-town proposals from local authorities and giving it to a national statutory body.
Yesterday officials admitted this had not been ruled out, but insisted it would simply lift the burden of dealing with large-scale developments from councils with limited resources.
Campaigners reacted angrily. David Bliss, of the campaign group Bard, which is protesting against a proposed site near Stratford, said: “If this is true, it just supports what we feared all along, that the deeply flawed consultation process is a sham.”
Ministers are facing mounting resistance to their plans. Stratford district council last week voted against an eco-town by the village of Long Marston, saying it would ruin the rural surroundings. The Bard campaign is supported by the actress Dame Judi Dench and John Nettles, the star of Midsomer Murders.
Ministers denied trying to speed up the process. Flint said: “I have made absolutely clear all eco-town bids will be subject to the proper local planning process.”
Isabel Oakeshott, Deputy Political Editor
18 May 2008
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