Public to lose voice in major planning rows

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The Independent Online

Ministers are urgently drawing up plans to prevent opposition through public inquiries to the building of nuclear dumps and power stations, motorways, airports and other controversial developments.

The plans, which could allow ministers to give the green light to hotly contested projects virtually by decree, pose the greatest threat to democracy in planning since the system was set up by a Labour government half a century ago.

They would reduce public inquiries to considering only "local" and "detailed" issues ­ such as how developments are landscaped ­ but forbid them from even discussing whether they are needed in the first place.

Pushed through by Tony Blair, following a campaign by the Confederation of British Industry, the plans promise to spark militant opposition, blighting the Government's second term. Environmentalists yesterday denounced them as "control-freakery of the worst kind" and warned that they would produce massive protests.

The move follows last weekend's stripping of environmental responsibilities from the department responsible for planning and transport, and the creation of the new Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The remaining Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions has been equipped with several pro-development junior ministers.

Lord Falconer ­ the minister responsible for the Millennium Dome ­ has been put in charge of planning and given the job of pushing the proposals through. His department said late last week that they would be finalised and made public "as soon as practicable".

The plans have been sparked by frustration at the length of some fiercely fought public inquiries. They are designed for large, controversial projects and were foreshadowed in Labour's little-noticed election manifesto for business. Senior officials and business leaders cite the inquiry into Heathrow's Terminal Five, which sat for a record 524 days.

The new plans aim "to reduce unnecessary debate at inquiries". The Government will issue "national policy framework statements", setting out the need for the developments "before they are considered in the planning system".

"New parliamentary procedures to approve projects in principle" will be introduced. In effect, these will allow the go-ahead for major developments such as the Channel Tunnel to be whipped through Westminster without the need for a special Act of Parliament..

Ministers would be able to decide to build a motorway or nuclear dump subject only to sharply curtailed parliamentary scrutiny. Draft plans say that "single debates" would be held in each House "on a motion moved by a Minister, inviting the House to approve the proposals".

After this "a short, subsequent inquiry would consider detailed and local matters". Specific provisions would "preclude discussion of matters settled by Parliament's approval in principle".

The new measures would apply to "projects of national significance". Ministers are considering applying them to "new airports or major extensions to airports; nuclear and other major waste disposal sites; power stations; major rail lines; major roads; and major minerals sites".

Draft plans acknowledge that public inquiries are "an important feature of the democratic process" which help ensure "open and fair" decisions. But they add "such an all-embracing process is slow and costly and damages the economy."

Late last week the CBI welcomed the Government's "commitment" to "a more rational inquiry process".

But the Royal Town Planning Institute said it was concerned that people would feel they were no longer getting "a fair hearing". Richard Macrory, Professor of Environmental Law at University College London, said some past decisions would have been worse if they had been made in Parliament rather than after a public inquiry.

Tony Burton, deputy director of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, said the plans threatened "the widest change to the ability of the planning system to scrutinise developments since it was established".

And Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends of the Earth, said: "This is control freakery of the worst kind. Any attempt to neuter public inquiries in this way will produce an explosion of environmental protest."