LONDON-Stephen Byers, Secretary of State at the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, has unveiled what he described as the biggest shake-up in the planning system for 50 years. He promises a faster decision-making process with more power being devolved to the local level.

To speed up the system, householder and business planning applications will be handled separately, and the current timescale for appeals to and call-ins by the Secretary of State will be halved. Time limits on planning consent will be cut from five to three years. And to simplify the system Byers plans to scrap the existing multi-layered plan hierarchy and replace it with a two-level system of village or neighbourhood plans and regional plans.

One of the most radical proposals is the introduction of Business Zones to allow developers to build in designated areas without requiring specific planning approval. The zones would be restricted to specific types of business like clusters of hi-tech industry.

Byers said: ‘We want a planning system in which the values of the whole community are allowed to prosper and develop. The current system does not allow that. It is slow, ponderous and uncertain. It benefits those with large cash and time resources and excludes those without. Our proposals have been characterised as being good for business. That is true. But they are good for the rest of the community, too.’

The proposal to streamline the planning system was welcomed by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. RICS planning and development spokesman Gary Halman said: ‘The creation of Local Development Frameworks is undoubtedly an innovative step and a more streamlined system is warmly welcomed.’ But he warned: ‘Safeguarding the supply of land available for housing and industry is an issue of national importance and it will be important to ensure that the new arrangements deliver this.’

But Peter Leaver, planning partner at consultant King Sturge questioned whether the new system would be workable in practice. ‘This sounds great in theory’, he said, ‘but is less convincing when you think through the implications. How will local authorities bridge the gap between the regions and the neighbourhood/village plans in a consistent and objective way?’ And he warned that the lack of a planning framework could lead to an increase in the number of appeals.

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