Reform sparks fear over public's input

Doubts were raised over the public's right to be heard on major infrastructure schemes despite government reassurances in the Planning Reform Bill published this week.

The DCLG responded to claims that it is removing the opportunity for people to have a say on major schemes by inserting clauses that could lead to oral hearings.

Hearings will be at the discretion of the infrastructure planning commission (IPC), which will decide how long they will be and what subjects can be discussed. Cross-examination of applicants will be restricted.

Norton Rose head of planning Nigel Hewitson said the move, combined with the six-month limit for the IPC to examine applications, would be seen as an attempt to stifle critics.

Objectors will not be able to call a debate on the need for the development as this will be set out in the national policy statement, which will face public consultation.

Where policy statements are location-specific there will be a duty to consult in those places, communities secretary Hazel Blears said. But there will be no right to be heard at this stage.

Statements can be challenged as long as a claim is lodged in six weeks. DLA Piper partner Howard Bassford said this would just shift controversy over developments from public inquiry to policy statement stage.

"I think that it would be safer for the government to enshrine the right to be heard when it is consulting on national policy statements," he maintained.

Friends of the Earth and the Town and Country Planning Association welcomed the steps to secure the right to be heard but warned that this must not be restricted to written representations.

Bircham Dyson Bell partner and planning reform sounding board member Robbie Owen said: "We need to get away from the view that cross-examination is good and everything else is bad."

PLANNING REFORM BILL: SUMMARY OF KEY POINTS

- The IPC will have between 20 and 30 members.

- It will have nine months to decide an application.

- The government wants the bill passed by next summer and policy statements by April 2009.

- Departments should start work on statements now.

- There is no timescale for reviewing statements.


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