Stephen Byers is facing a court battle with the European Commission after he was warned that Britain is in breach of EU rules to control major leisure and business park developments.
The row has broken out over allegations from the European Commission that Britain has failed to implement two EU directives dating from 1985 which require environmental impact assessments (EIAs) to be done for all large construction projects.
The legal move is a blow to the commercial property industry which dislikes EIAs, a source of delay for development projects, sometimes for years.
Mr Byers, the minister for local government and planning, was sent a formal warning earlier this month by the commission claiming that ministers have ignored their duties under the directive.
In a letter to Mr Byers, which raises difficult questions about his plans to relax planning laws in England and Wales, the commission said it would now begin infringement proceedings against Britain. Spain is being taken to the European Court under the same directive and the Dutch and Italian governments have also received formal notices.
Despite the clear risk that the commission will now pursue legal action in the European Court, Mr Byers has dismissed its complaints and insisted that Britain has fulfilled its legal duties.
Its complaints focus on the controversial £80m project to build a 20-screen multiplex and leisure development in Crystal Palace park owned by Bromley Borough Council, south London, as part of a £120m economic redevelopment plan for the area.
After provoking furious opposition from local residents, the project collapsed earlier this year in a dispute between the council and the developers over leasing the land. The council is now considering how to rescue its regeneration plans, and has not ruled out resurrecting the multiplex project.
Now, the commission has supported local complaints that ministers were legally obliged to carry out an EIA on the project since it "exceeded the threshold for assessment" under the directive.
But the commission added that the Crystal Palace project was only one example of a wider problem. Britain, the Commission warned, was not applying the EIA rules under "the procedure foreseen under the directive".
A spokesman for the Department of Local Government, Transport and the Regions said ministers believed they had properly used the discretion allowed under the directive, which simply set indicative thresholds for judging if an EIA were required. The normal planning process already took into account the environmental impact of specific projects. "We do not believe our procedures are in breach of the directive," he said. Ministers had already explained the Government's position to the commission and had hoped to avoid a continued row. "We're disappointed that the commission is taking this to the next stage," he added.
David Rose, director of communications for the Royal Town Planning Institute, said the case raised a series of complicated practical and legal issues which Mr Byers would have to address during his forthcoming review of the planning system.
Mr Byers is to unveil a Green Paper this autumn which is expected to ease the way to push through controversial major projects such as airport extensions, nuclear power stations and motorways. The commission's warnings could mean that EIAs may have to be given added prominence. "We don't want a planning system which is so full of procedures that we can't see the wood for the trees," Mr Rose said. "But what's equally clear is that there are certain elements of our planning system which leave a lot of discretion to the Government.
"It's quite clear some of that discretion doesn't wash at present."Reuse content