Town Planning under the Microscope

Readers may have noticed some passing references in the national press to Government's review of the town planning system.

Lord Falconer, famous for the Dome saga, has been charged by Tony Blair with speeding up the planning system. This comes as a direct response to criticism by the developers that planning permissions are taking too long to obtain. Development is slowing down and the system altogether has become too unwieldy. There is no doubting that many high profile planning projects like the proposals for the Fifth Terminal at Heathrow Airport do take a long time to get through the planning system because of the inevitable public inquiries which are called to deal with these major issues. The Government wants to remove major projects like new airports, power stations, motorways or docks from the planning system and to give the power to Parliament to, effectively, grant planning permission. This is likely to affect only a few major projects a year which would fall into the category of being nationally important.

However, the Government's proposals are more swingeing than taking a few planning applications away from local authorities to determine. The plans which are prepared by the County Councils, known as Structure Plans, which set the broad policies for counties like Staffordshire, are set to be abolished by the Government and responsibility for overall planning passed to the new Regional Assembly based in Birmingham. It will control an area from the Peak District in the North to the edges of the Welsh Marshes in Herefordshire. Yet it will be expected to be sensitive to the needs of the local communities in that wide area. The District Plans, prepared by councils like Lichfield, will turn into 'Local Development Frameworks' setting out the broad vision for the area but relying on detailed small- scale plans for those parts of the Council's area where change is envisaged.

All this is seen by many organisations, including the Civic Society, as not a streamlining of the system but as a removal of local democratic accountability by the transference of many decisions either to Parliament or to some distant regional headquarters.

And what about planning applications? Well, they will still be determined largely by District Councils such as Lichfield but the Government is anxious that the speed of determination is accelerated. Indeed, its proposals seem to suggest that the opportunity for the local planners to consult the local community interest groups and other organisations like the Civic Society on planning applications will be more restricted, in an effort to speed the process up.

No one doubts that the system needs overhauling, largely because previous Governments have tinkered with it to such an extent that it is creaking at the seams. But the current proposals seem ill thought through and they are certainly destined to raise objections from national interest groups whose aim is to protect the environment against inappropriate development. Many have already said that they see this Government selling out to the developer lobby and inhibiting people's democratic rights to comment on development.

Watch the press and your TV screens during the latter part of this year. It will be interesting to see how the Government square the circle of a streamlined planning system with democratic accountability.

Roger Hockney
April 2002