By Nick Golding, political editor
Concern is mounting that councils' ability to shape the economy and environment of their areas could be jeopardised by the creation of a national commission with the power to override local views on major infrastructure projects.
Controversy over how many planning applications will be referred to the commission threaten to overshadow the ministerial pledge to slash red tape for planning officers outlined in Monday's planning white paper.
Minor developments including small extensions and wind turbines on homes will in many cases no longer need planning permission, lessening the burden on councils.
Communities and local government secretary Ruth Kelly said: 'Decision making can be painfully slow, causing costs and prolonged uncertainty that are in no one's interests - not individuals', nor communities', nor developers'.'
She told the House of Commons that the planners, lawyers and environmentalists on the commission would be guided by ministerial statements on planning policy and make final decisions on infrastructural projects after 'listening to local concerns'.
Ms Kelly defined major infrastructure schemes as including 'transport, environmental, waste or energy projects - everything from roads, to reservoirs to power plants and wind farms'.
Ministers believe the existing piecemeal planning system holds up major projects such as Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5, which took seven years to determine, and hampers growth. They insist that the commission can strike a fairer balance in recognising local views and speeding up the process.
The prime minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown is keen to recast councils as local agents of economic prosperity, building on the 'place-shaping' role envisioned for local government by the Lyons Inquiry. In order to achieve this objective, councils now have to plan for economic development.
However, the Local Government Association is desperate to ensure the growth drive and the creation of the commission does not impact on councils' democratic remit to stand up for local residents' interests.
LGA chairman Lord Bruce-Lockhart (Con) said the commission should determine a maximum of about half a dozen projects a year, with councils given greater ability to
decide whether other planning applications were passed.
'The important thing is that this commission's jurisdiction is limited to those very few national projects and at the same time they build in mechanisms to properly consult local people and local authorities,' he said.
He also demanded clarification over the role of the government's planning inspectors, to ensure they could not overturn councils' decisions unless they had acted illegally. The government insists the white paper should result in fewer council decisions being called in.
Dermot Finch, director of the Centre for Cities think tank, said the white paper could speed up approval for major transport projects, but warned there was a risk of taking planning powers away from elected city leaders, undermining devolution.
'We'd like to see clear caps on the number and type of decisions the independent planning commission will make and regional experts on the panel,' he said.
Merrick Cockell (Con), chairman of London Councils, said: 'Local people will lose their say as new, unelected, unaccountable and unsackable 'planning commissioners' will simply impose large projects - airports, motorways, gas works, incinerators and sewage plants - on communities.'
Meanwhile, the Campaign to Protect Rural England predicted the 'economic bias' of the document would result in less local power to stop large supermarkets and housing estates being built on green field land.
The New Local Government Network's acting director Dick Sorabji said only decisions affecting the whole country should be decided at national level. But he insisted the proposals could 'loosen planning logjams and simplify the process' of large and small planning applications.
But the white paper, Planning for a sustainable future, waters down the proposals
in economist Kate Barker's government-commissioned review to slacken protections for green belts and town centre retailing.