Is giving mayors more power the best way to restructure the planning system?

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The Independent Online

Big changes are on the way for buy-to-let landlords if government proposals in the Queen's Speech are implemented. Leadership of local authorities will be strengthened under new legislation, with more elected mayors.

The aim is to enable leaders with vision to push through large developments that benefit the whole region, even against local opposition that currently scuppers many initiatives.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone gets even greater powers under a proposed Greater London Authority Bill intended to give him powers to tackle the specific problems of the capital.

The proposed legislation was welcomed by the British Property Federation, the trade body for UK property companies. Faraz Baber, director of planning and regeneration at the BPF, said: "Finally the government has recognised that the current system, designed to cater for household extensions and small-scale developments, is not suited to the modern-day demands of major developments and their supporting infrastructure.

"We welcome the move to look at developing a planning process specifically to cater for major planning projects that have a national impact on society," he says.

Baber warns, however, that the legislation should not be limited to infrastructure, such as roads and energy. The acute property shortage in the South-east, for example, shows no sign of abating as rates of house completions remain well below historic levels. Schemes to provide affordable housing are particularly vulnerable.

Big infrastructure improvements, including rail links, metros, roads and energy generation plants, are vital to unlock many brownfield sites, which often need improved transport and power stations to become viable.

The Thames Gateway area, currently being transformed from a dying industrial wasteland into homes and workplaces, will need many new rail and road links, plus several power stations.

"The issue of creating a planning framework for such schemes is long overdue, and to rely upon the system adopted in the 2004 Planning Act is no longer sufficient for modern-day global demands," Baber says.

Elected mayors and executive leaders are widely credited with energising city centre regeneration programmes, notably in Birmingham and Manchester, cities that have been very profitable buy-to-let investment areas. They seem to provide the vision that enables people to see how decayed Victorian infrastructure can be transformed into vibrant places for modern living.

Not everyone is keen on the expansion of mayoral powers, especially Ken Livingstone's. Merrick Cockell, chairman of the umbrella body for London boroughs, London Councils, said: "Our belief is that the case for making changes to the planning system has not been made. No analysis of the Mayor's performance on planning applications has been offered to justify extending his powers. In contrast, London's local authorities are performing well, both in terms of Best Value Performance Indicators for the speed of dealing with major planning applications, and for delivering on housing targets."

Merrick fears that giving sweeping powers to the Mayor's office will lead to planning by diktat, depriving local communities of a voice. "We want guarantees that if the Mayor takes over an application, the decision-making process is as transparent as the operation of borough planning committees."

Another fear is that beefed-up planning departments and a separate system for major infrastructure and energy projects will simply add another layer of bureaucracy to the planning process, delaying an already protracted process still further.