Business zones win planning loophole

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Ministers plan to let businesses build offices and factories in "business planning zones" across the country without having to seek planning permission to do so.

And tomorrow they will announce plans to stop people challenging the need for new roads, airports, nuclear dumps and power stations at public inquiries.

Environmentalists believe that the changes will fatally undermine the system and open up the countryside to development. However, Lord Falconer, the Planning Minister, says that the zones will make rural areas more "business-friendly", attracting firms by virtue of being "simple and easy to operate". They would exempt companies from having to get planning permission, so long as the firms observe general "criteria" drawn up for the areas. This would ensure businesses that they would get the go-ahead without delay.

The new provisions for roads, nuclear power stations and other "major infrastructure projects" – stimulated by frustration at the length of public inquiries into controversial plans – are likely to provoke even more opposition. Under them, says Lord Falconer, public inquiries will be able to consider only "the how, not the whether" of schemes.

The need for such projects would be decided by "a national policy statement", issued by ministers, and approval would be given by an Act of Parliament. The Government, he said, would "almost certainly" take a view on each project, which means that it would be whipped through.

But Tony Burton of the National Trust said yesterday that both plans made ministers "unaccountable".