MPs given new power in planning shake-up

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Decisions on whether to build airports, roads and other big projects may be taken by MPs rather than local councillors, the Government hinted yesterday when it signalled the biggest reform of the planning system for a generation.

Decisions on whether to build airports, roads and other big projects may be taken by MPs rather than local councillors, the Government hinted yesterday when it signalled the biggest reform of the planning system for a generation.

Green campaigners expressed concern at the proposals, put forward as a business-friendly shake-up of the system by the Planning minister, Lord Falconer of Thoroton. They said the changes would be a blow to local democracy.

The proposals imply that schemes such as Heathrow airport's Terminal 5 or the proposed giant port at Dibden Bay in the New Forest would be decided in principle not by local planners or even a public inquiry, but by a vote in Parliament. Local planners would decide only small details.

The full proposals will be published next month, but outlining them yesterday in a speech to the CBI conference in Birmingham, Lord Falconer said the planning system was "costing us dear" in economic prosperity. "Business is not confident that sensible long-term planning on its part will be reflected by clear, predictable, and timely decisions by the planning system," he said.

In particular, he said, infrastructure projects of vital importance to the economy had been "planned on an ad hoc basis and bogged down in the system". A consultation document on "new parliamentary procedures for major infrastructure projects" would be forthcoming. Although Lord Falconer gave no details, government sources said this would involve decisions of principle about large projects of national importance being taken in Parliament, probably by a vote of the whole House, rather than through the local planning system. It would not be a lessening of democracy because people could lobby their MPs, the sources said.

But environmental groups saidpeople would be disenfranchised. "It would undermine community engagement and public participation in the planning process," said Henry Oliver of the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

"If these decisions are going to be pushed through in some debate in the Commons where the only opportunity people have to comment or have their say is to lobby their MP, then we have a problem with it. MPs are unlikely to have the information ... or time to make an informed decision. The point about public participation is that there is an opportunity to examine alternatives."

Ruth Chambers of the Council for National Parks said she would be worried "if the use of parliamentary procedures prevents proper public scrutiny". The council has recently campaigned against two major projects – the extension of the Army's training facilities at Otterburn in the Northumberland national park, and the Dibden Bay scheme.

The Government's move stems from its concern with "delivery", and the planning system is seen as an obstacle. The Terminal 5 inquiry, which lasted six years, is seen as reflecting a system which does not answer national economic needs.

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