Builders praise planning controls reform but conservationists object

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The Independent Online

The debate over housing and the countryside was reignited yesterday when ministers unveiled proposals that would strip county councils of the power to decide where large housing schemes are sited.

The debate over housing and the countryside was reignited yesterday when ministers unveiled proposals that would strip county councils of the power to decide where large housing schemes are sited.

Conservation groups fiercely criticised plans to allow big regional planning bodies, some of whose members would be unelected, to decide how many new homes should be built, and where, across several counties at a time. This would mean that a district council in rural Hampshire, for example, could have a housing scheme imposed on it by a committee sitting in Oxfordshire, and a district in west Cornwall could find a similar imposition from a body sitting in Bristol.

Tony Burton, policy and strategy director for the National Trust, said: "The counties have been bulwarks against excessive large-scale housing development which could not be absorbed by either local communities or the environment. Now this is all to be swept away. The new system will backfire as communities find the rules of the game have already been decided for them."

The proposals – warmly welcomed by house-builders and the business community – were at the core of a reform of the planning system put forward in a Green Paper by Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, and the Planning minister Lord Falconer of Thoroton.

Presented as "the biggest shake-up of the planning system in more than half a century", the new system would be faster and fairer, Mr Byers said, "with community interests at its heart". Conservation groups said that, on the contrary, communities were being further disenfranchised by the removal of the counties' planning powers.

Some of the Green Paper's proposals, such as putting time limits on planning decisions, were welcomed. Controversy centred on the move to scrap one of the three tiers of the planning process, which is spread through local, county and regional plans. In the new system, county structure plans, which county councils have used for 30 years to site new housing according to local circumstances, would disappear.

Under the proposed system, new regional planning bodies – so far only vaguely defined, but certain to have some unelected members such as leading local businessmen – would determine new housing numbers and distribution. With that change is a proposal to set up business zones to allow developers, especially of hi-tech industry, to build in designated areas without planning approval. The Housebuilders' Federation said: "We welcome the new emphasis on regional strategies to ensure the pressing need for housing is put into action. The under-supply of housing has cause problems of unsustainability in communities, resulting in their break-up."

Digby Jones, CBI director general, said: "Our present planning system undermines UK competitiveness and discourages firms from expanding here. It's the best friend the economies of France and Germany have. This is a sensible package. The present system helps no one. It can mean a decision takes years and the grounds for that decision are still unclear."

Conservation groups pro-tested. "Where there used to be democratic strategic planning with opportunities for people to get involved, there will now be a gaping hole," said Henry Oliver of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. "What's the point in saying you're giving people more involvement if you anyway take them out of the strategic decisions where you decide how much development there will have to be? Mr Byers is saying people are disempowered by the current process, but how will they be they empowered if they suddenly find 10,000 houses on their doorstep and all their local council can decide is in precisely what field they go in, and what they look like?"

The new proposals were "disastrous for local people and the environment", Friends of the Earth said. "The changes would lead to the biggest removal of rights ever seen in the British planning system," a spokesman said.

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