Darling calls for radical overhaul of the planning system to aid transport schemes

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The Independent Online

A radical overhaul of the planning system designed to speed up the building of major transport projects is likely to be one of the key recommendations of the review being undertaken for the Government by Sir Rod Eddington, the former chief executive of British Airways, it emerged yesterday.

Addressing the CBI conference, the Secretary of State for Transport, Alistair Darling, said it was "nonsense" that a scheme such as Heathrow's Terminal Five had taken as long as it had and planning would be one of the key issues studied in the Eddington review. Sir Rod, commissioned to carry out the study in April by Mr Darling and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, is due to report back in the middle of next year. His remit is to assess the long-term transport needs of the economy over the next 25 years and the role an improved road, rail and air network could play in aiding productivity and growth.

Mr Darling said planning procedures needed to be overhauled so that "major strategic projects" such as T5 or the proposed North-South high-speed rail link did not become bogged down in endless delays and planning inquiries. "To spend years discussing the principle of these things when it can be done quickly is nonsense," he told delegates.

Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, also called for a streamlining of the planning process when deciding on major transport initiatives in the capital. Mr Livingstone's Transport for London (TfL) wants to be made the franchising authority for all commuter train lines into London and is pressing for permission to invest £7bn in the suburban rail network over the next 20 years.

He said that for this to happen there would need to be a shake-up of the planning regime because, as things stood, for virtually every single project undertaken TfL would need both the authority of a Transport Works Act and planning permission.

Mr Darling also gave a clear indication that he is determined to press ahead with a national road tolls scheme by announcing £7m in grants for local authorities in seven regions to draw up plans for road-pricing pilot studies. The areas range from Bristol and Bath and the West Midlands conurbation to Durham in the North-east and Manchester.

"One of the biggest threats to economic expansion we face in the next 10 to 15 years is congestion on the roads in our towns and cities," he told delegates. A White Paper published by Mr Darling last year suggested a national road pricing scheme could not be introduced until 2014 at the earliest but officials are now working flat out to speed up the timing.