A Labour shadow minister has condemned a move by ministers to take planning decisions away from councils, describing it as a “blow to democracy” that flies in the face of the coalition’s localist rhetoric.
As part of housing reforms announced this month ministers said that if local authorities were failing to take planning decisions quickly enough, these could be transferred to the independent Planning Inspectorate.
The move was barely noticed because of a plethora of other high-profile measures such as funding for social housing, a government guarantee for housing association bonds and a relaxation of rules so that people can extend their homes more easily.
Hilary Benn, shadow communities secretary, told the Financial Times that the change was “astonishing” and accused the government of burying it in the “technical details” announced that day.
“Eric Pickles has spent two or three years claiming that he is a great fan of localism. He’s now performing a screeching U-turn, it is astonishing,” he said.
Mr Benn said that it would be difficult to gauge whether a council was dragging its heels, given that big projects in urban areas often required longer to assess.
“It has been a fundamental principle of the planning system for a long time that the local authority makes decisions in the first instance on planning applications,” he said. “If you’re refused you have the right of applying to the Planning Inspectorate.”
The move has also led to a backlash from Tories in local government, with Sir Merrick Cockell, chairman of the Local Government Association, criticising the plans.
The plan would rob people of local decision-making and would lead to a “super quango” riding roughshod over the wishes of local people, he said.
“Suddenly, without any discussion, the government is threatening to take power away from local communities and place it in the hands of a super quango,” he added. “It is deeply worrying to see policy being made on the hoof in Whitehall, rather than by a government working closely with councils who know what is happening on the ground.”
The last-minute changes were assembled on the night before the announcement on September 6. A spokesman for Eric Pickles denied rumours that the Tory communities secretary was uncomfortable about the powers.
“Planning delays create uncertainty and unfairness both for local residents and local firms,” he said. “Our practical measures will help speed up planning decisions and appeals and help deliver major infrastructure projects.”
The coalition is also planning to relax the “Section 106” obligations on developers to build a certain proportion of affordable homes in their schemes.
Mr Benn warned that if this move was not implemented until 2013 it could create a hiatus as companies waited for the new rules before proceeding with projects. “The risk is that this will cause more delay in building houses as developers wait for this to take effect,” he said.