4m new homes to be forced through

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Ministers are pressing ahead with "explosive" plans to give unelected bodies the power to decide where new houses are built.

County councils, the main opponents of large-scale building in the countryside, will be stripped of their powers, while district councils will have to obey the directions of new regional authorities, partially made up of businessmen.

Nearly four million new homes are expected to be built in England over the next two decades – and few issues raise stronger passions, particularly in the South East, where councils have fought what they see as overdevelopment. Environmentalists say the plans would amount to an unprecedented removal of democratic rights.

The National Housebuilders Federation, however, blames the planning system for cutting the number of houses built each year to the lowest level in 70 years. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned that, unless "politically unwelcome" decisions were taken, England could be short of a million homes in 20 years.

Lord Falconer, the Planning Minister, admitted that, politically, the plans were "absolutely explosive". But he insisted that the Government had to make sure that "the planning system can actually deliver housing sites in accordance with proper planning". In the past, regional planning guidance has laid down how many houses should be built. But county councils have been able both to challenge the numbers allocated to their areas and to decide how the houses will be distributed. Lord Falconer says this process is "too slow" and leads to "conflict".

The new system would bypass county councils and enable new regional planning authorities to reject any objections from district councils. In some cases, new "subregional bodies" might play a part in distributing the new housing, but the regional authority would have the final say.

The problem, as Lord Falconer recognises, is that "no regional democratic bodies exist at the moment" and that some regions will not have elected bodies "for many years to come". But he intends to press ahead nonetheless.

The new bodies, he says, will probably have a majority made up of councillors appointed by local authorities, sitting with representatives of business, voluntary organisations and the community.

Yesterday Henry Oliver, of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, said: "People would have no confidence in the new system because they would be frozen out of decisions that have big effects on their lives. The Government will provoke massive public outrage, and make it even harder to get developments through quickly."