By Daniel Hunter
Residents and councils would be left powerless to decide where new warehouses, factories and industrial premises are built in their communities, under Government planning reforms which town hall leaders say will undermine the work councils are doing to deliver economic growth.
Developers of warehouses, factories, offices and conference centres larger than 40,000 square metres — roughly the size of a big supermarket site — could choose to bypass local communities in favour of having their planning applications assessed in private by a quango and ministers, as part of the Government's Growth and Infrastructure Bill.
The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents more than 370 councils in England and Wales, is calling for a rethink of the proposal to take planning powers away from local areas, which is due to be discussed in the House of Lords this Wednesday (30 January).
The LGA is arguing that as well as being a blow to local democracy, the reforms are unlikely to achieve their stated aim of speeding up the planning process for large scale commercial projects. It is also warning that taking decisions out of the hands of residents and democratically-elected councillors could lead to unsuitable development that local people don't want and that doesn't fit in with an area's plans for economic growth.
The Department for Communities and Local Government says the aim is to ensure that decisions on such large scale commercial projects would be fast tracked within 12 months. Its own statistics show councils are already determining and approving 85 per cent of relevant large scale major applications within that timeframe, with more than 70 per cent determined within 26 weeks.
Councillor Mike Jones, Chairman of the LGA's Environment and Housing Board, said:
"Local authorities are committed to driving economic growth and this plan is clearly not the best way of achieving that aim. Taking the final decision on the building of new factories, warehouses and commercial premises away from the local people who will be most affected by it will increase opposition to new development and cut across councils' plans for growth. If developers want to build six football pitches worth of warehouses, it's only right that local people get to decide where in their town that happens.
"There is no evidence to suggest that putting an unelected national quango in charge of assessing such decisions will speed up or improve a planning process which, in the vast majority of cases, is already beating the targets set out in the Bill. These centralising proposals are completely at odds with the Government's previous promise to make the planning system more accountable to local people.
"Councils have a huge role to play in encouraging and supporting local growth and engaging with communities in major planning applications. We work closely with industry to ensure that new commercial development reaps benefits for business, residents who live nearby and the area as a whole. In order to maximise growth in local economies the development of new offices, warehouses and factories has to be coordinated with the development of the shops, utilities, transport links and housing which make it viable. Planning is at the heart of making that happen. Taking powers away from local areas is likely to increase the risk of unsuitable development getting the go-ahead which may undermine the effective plans local areas have put in place to drive their economy and regenerate neighbourhoods."
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