January 29, 2013 6:01 pm

Bill lets developers sidestep councils

Developers wanting to build large offices, warehouses and factories will be able to sidestep local authority planning departments and appeal directly to a national quango in what campaigners have condemned as the latest blow to the coalition’s “localism” agenda.

The change, which is part of the growth and infrastructure bill, applies to factories, offices, conference centres and warehouses larger than 40,000 sq m – roughly the size of a big supermarket. In these instances the developers could appeal to the Planning Inspectorate rather than their local council.

The move comes as Labour criticises the same bill for giving ministers the authority to take away planning powers from any council deemed as “failing” on the basis of their slow decisions.

The two changes are widely seen as a fresh attempt to tip the scales in the planning system away from local people towards big business as part of George Osborne’s attempts to revive the economy.

Whilst likely to be welcomed by the property industry, the Local Government Association has spoken out against the proposal to let developers bypass councils on large-scale commercial projects.

The group said the changes were a “blow to local democracy” and were unlikely to achieve their stated aim of speeding up the process. The changes could lead to “unsuitable development” that local people did not want and did not fit in with that area’s economic plans, it added.

The LGA said that councils were approving 85 per cent of large-scale major applications within one year, with more than 70 per cent dealt with within 26 weeks.

Mike Jones, chair of the group’s environment and housing board, said the “centralising” change was at odds with the coalition’s localist rhetoric.

“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,” he said.

The communities department said that “quicker and better” planning decisions were needed to create jobs.

“We have been clear that no application will be accepted for consideration unless the applicant has shown they have consulted widely with the local community and council first, and decisions will be taken by democratically elected ministers,” the department said.

Meanwhile, Labour has attacked the bill for centralising decision-making powers by giving Eric Pickles, communities secretary, the power to take away planning decisions from “failing” authorities – with no right of appeal.

A council will be designated as failing where “30 per cent or fewer major applications have been determined within the statutory period or more than 20 per cent of major decisions have been overturned at appeal”.

Barking and Dagenham, an east London council, said in a statement: “We do not support this assault on local democracy, which is completely at odds with localism.”

It said that it had approved all big applications in 2011-12, but had taken longer to do so to allow developers to amend their schemes so they could be approved. “We could have refused such schemes within 13 weeks but how is that good for growth?” the council asked.

“This is a profoundly anti-localist measure and one that Labour strongly opposes,” said Lord McKenzie, shadow communities minister in the House of Lords. “What we see with this clause is the Cameron government attempting to further shift power from local planning authorities to central government.”

Ministers were “recklessly” focusing on the speed of decision-making by authorities to the detriment of “quality of planning decisions”, he added.

The communities department said it was “unfair” when councils took too long to take planning decisions, “creating uncertainty for applicants and local residents”.

“The department only expects the new procedures to be used as a last resort, in those few places where there is clear evidence that planning is not being dealt with effectively,” the department said.

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