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Planning Bill set for postponement after hitting Iraqi bottleneck

Serious delays are threatening the long-awaited Planning Bill following a hush-hush government move to postpone its next Commons reading until '2004 at the earliest'.

The decision to put the bill on the back burner is down to a bottleneck caused by the amount of parliamentary time given over to the recent war in Iraq.

One Conservative MP, Sidney Chapman, the House of Commons' only architect, has predicted that the government 'could even be preparing to drop it altogether'.

The bill, if it receives royal assent, would transform England's planning system. It would remove all statutory powers from county councils, beef up the role of regional planners and quicken compulsory purchase procedures.

But Chapman, who also sits on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister select committee, told the AJ that the 'government simply does not have the time to push this through' and hit out at the department's handling of the bill.

'This is a complete mess. It has been an absolute disgrace, ' he said. 'There has been complete silence on the subject for three months and [planning minister] Tony McNulty doesn't appear to have a clue what he is doing'.

An ODPM spokesman confirmed that delays have hit the bill, saying that speculation it would not get back to the Commons until next year is 'not far off the mark'.

Labour MP and planning specialist Christine Russell agreed that there is a lot of uncertainty over the bill's future.

'The Iraq conflict did put a lot of pressure on the timing of the bill, ' she said. 'But this doesn't really explain what has happened. It had its last reading in January but no progress since.

It seems likely that it is set for a long postponement.'

The RIBA's planning committee chair, Wendy Shillam, said she would 'not be surprised' if the bill was dropped because 'the majority of the most important changes do not need primary legislation'.

'The war might have persuaded the government that it can make the changes it wants through secondary legislation, not a major bill, ' she said.

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