A swathe of wide-ranging reforms were unveiled in the long-awaited planning Green Paper, published last week. However, the document was shadowed by doubts over the effective delivery of the measures.
Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR), said that the 'confusing and often contradictory multi-layered planning hierarchy' will be replaced with a two-level system of local and regional plans.
Structure plans, local plans and unitary development plans (UDPs) will be scrapped and replaced with a local development framework (LDF). This will be based on neighbourhood or village plans prepared by district or unitary councils. The LDF will sit within Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs) prepared by an unelected regional body made up of RDAs, the public, business and voluntary sectors.
But the Green Paper immediately set alarm bells ringing in some quarters, as it will bypass the democratically elected tier of county councils. Lee Searles, head of policy affairs at the Local Government Association (LGA), vowed to challenge the proposals. 'We are very unhappy at the way the government is trying to rewrite the role of county councils. To ignore us is a serious error, ' he said.
There were also concerns that the streamlined system could harm design. Wendy Shillam, chair of the RIBA's Planning Policy Group, told the AJ that the LDF could be 'overly prescriptive and lacking in clarity', which would hinder good design. CABE also expressed its fears over the lack of an explicit link between design and the granting of planning permission.
The separation of householder and business applications is also intended as a method of speeding the process. However, Shillam told the AJ that this would not be effective: 'A simple use-class split is not the answer. A small business application has more in common with a householder application than that of a big business.'
The Green Paper also suggests steps to strengthen planning departments. These include increasing planning application fees and improving recruitment, retention and training for local authority planners.
However, Benoy director Keith Neill-Smith claimed this did not go far enough. 'This seems to be papering over the cracks, ' he said. He added that, without a significant increase in resources and funding, 'this worthy initiative will be stymied'.
One of the key suggestions to increase the role of the community in the process was to bring the public consultation process forward in the system, so that it must be completed before a planning application is made.
However, Jane Vlach, information officer at planning consultant Robert Turley Associates, told the AJ that this could cause architects problems on time-sensitive applications. She said:
'Architects will have to make clients very aware that this could cause delays in submitting a planning application. There won't be a way of speeding that part of the process.'
Environmental groups were appalled at the paper's calls for the creation of 'business zones' - commercial areas not requiring specific planning approval - and the fast-tracking of national infrastructure projects, including chemical plants, quarries, nuclear facilities, runways and ports, which will be considered by Parliament as part of the reforms. Dr Hugh Ellis, planning campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: 'This is worse than we feared. Local people's rights to object have been severely undermined.'
For a full summary of the planning Green Paper, visit www. ajplus. co. uk