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Fast-track housing proposal sparks Gateway sustainability concerns

Alarm bells are ringing in the architectural and planning community over the government's radical moves to accelerate its ambitious housebuilding programme in the Thames Gateway.

Both the RIBA and the RTPI have issued warnings over new procedures that involve the fasttracking of established planning processes to allow approvals of up to 15,000 houses in one go.

Under the restructuring, local authorities will lose their strategic planning powers to the government's Urban Development Corporation (UDC).

Among the first to benefit from the fast-track approvals is a proposed masterplan by Dutchbased Maxwan - for English Partnerships and housebuilder Bellway - that will see 11,000 new homes built in Barking Reach.

However, the decision to grant planning permission to this massive scheme has triggered fury because the local UDC is not yet fully up and running. It has yet to agree funding and staffing within its remit, critics have warned.

RTPI policy director Kelvin MacDonald said that Maxwan's plans are likely to create 'unsustainable' communities. 'We are not arguing against the need for new housing or even against the use of simplified planning procedures in some cases, ' he said.

'However, if we do not make decisions against a properly thought-out vision and investment plan for Thames Gateway, we run the real risk of rushing through schemes that will prove to be unsustainable in terms of accessibility, facilities and relationship to jobs.

'The Gateway provides a unique opportunity to show that we have learned from the mistakes of the past, ' he added.

And the RIBA's Steven Harding also urged caution. 'We are all for a swift transparent planning process, but not at the expense of genuine democratic scrutiny or community involvement. The quality of the outcome must be paramount, not its speed, ' he said.

However, housing and planning minister Keith Hill disagreed, saying the plan would act as an exemplar for the rest of the Thames Gateway.

'This is a groundbreaking initiative that brings together the combined strength of the public and private sectors to tackle one of the most longstanding and prominently vacant sites in the Gateway, ' he said.

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