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ROUNDUP OF LOCAL AUTHORITY STORIES IN THE NATIONAL PRESS - UPDATED 12:10HRS

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THE BIG ISSUE: PLANNING RE-VAMP AIMS TO GIVE BUSINESS A BOOST ...
THE BIG ISSUE: PLANNING RE-VAMP AIMS TO GIVE BUSINESS A BOOST

Ministers will today signal the biggest shake-up in planning law for 50 years in response to complaints from businesses about the slowness and cost of the current system. Planning minister Lord Falconer will say that the complexity and unpredictability of the system are having a big impact on competitiveness. Ministers are concerned about the eight-year delay in reaching a final decision on a fifth terminal at Heathrow airport, to be announced shortly. Other high-profile projects have been delayed, including the Birmingham northern relief road, the Channel tunnel high-speed line, and Sizewell B nuclear power station. Business leaders say existing planning procedures could cause delays to projects of national importance, including a proposed expansion of the port of Southampton. Voicing concern known to be shared with his chancellor Gordon Brown, Tony Blair told the CBI conference yesterday that the planning system needed a 'radical overhaul' because important decisions were being delayed. Lord Falconer will today tell the CBI conference in Birmingham that a green paper to be published next month will propose radical changes to speed up big projects. These include:

-Removing one of the three tiers of government - national, local and regional - from the planning system to reduce conflict and possible confusion;

-Placing parliamentary decisions in principle at the beginning of the planning process. Schemes would be returned to local planners for detailed consideration;

- Speeding up compulsory purchase powers to make it easier for local authorities to assemble land for re-generation;

- Broadening section 106 agreements, which allow planners to force developers to pay part of the cost of infrastructure to service developments;

-Encouraging a bigger role for teams of local authorities and interested groups, which have been used successfully to speed up big projects.

Lord Falconer will stress that planning decisions will remain democratically accountable, reports the Financial Times(p1).

IN DEPTH: 'RIVERS CLEANER THAN IN 19TH CENTURY' - ENVIRONMENT MINISTER

Investment generated by a 35% increase in water bills since privatisation had led to Britain's rivers being in their best state since the industrial revolution, environment minsiter Michael Meacher said yesterday. Some£3bn a year spent on upgrading sewage works has seen the rusurrection of some rivers which were biologically dead in places. However, problems remain. A survey of parks and popular riverside walks by the environment agency found that a third of 450 sites contained serious contamination, including plastic and other waste washed out from sewage overflows during rain storms. Water quality in most of these rivers was good - but the litter, colour and smell of the water, oil scum, foam, sewage fungus, and dog-fouling remain big problems. About 5,500 sewage overflows have been identified as responsible. The government has a programme for improving 4,500 of them by 2005, at a cost of£1.5bn. Overall, the agency says 94% of rivers are classified as of good or fair quality, compared with 85% in 1990. Mr Meacher said: 'These are the best figures ever across the UK. The reason is cleaner discharges from sewage works, helped by high river flows,' reports The Guardian(p9).

WORKPLACE #1: NO CLAIMS FOR EMPLOYEES WHO HAVE NOT FOLLOWED GRIEVANCE PROCEDURE

Most employees are to be prevented from making claims at employment tribunals unless they have completed internal company grievance procedures, it emerged yesterday. The issue has become a test for the Confederation of British Industry of the government's business credibility. Digby Jones, director- general, has repeatedly described it as 'a line in the sand' for companies. Patricia Hewitt, the trade and industry secretary, told the CBI conference that an employment bill, due this week, would make sure that company procedures re-placed tribunals as the focus of grievance procedures. 'The whole thrust of these proposals is to get issues dealt with inside the firm, and that is why we are putting such emphasis on dispute resolution,' she said. Employment tribunals have emerged as an important issue for business because of a threefold increase in applications over the past few years. More than 60 per cent of applicants have not completed company procedures, and ministers agree with business leaders that some claims are little more than attempts to extort money from companies reluctant to spend time defending cases, reports the Financial Times(p4).

WORKPLACE #2: CBI AT BIRMINGHAM: Tougher line urged over workplace discrimination ...

Digby Jones also warned yesterday that businesses faced heavier equal opportunities regulation in the wake of the 11 September attacks on the US, and race riots in some UK towns and cities this summer. The director-general of the Confederation of British Industry said companies could avert the threat of more red tape by cracking down on discrimination in the workplace themselves. He said that following the riots, and given concerns over religious divisions in the UK, 'we are operating in a new climate, a climate which is extremely sensitive to charges of racism or other discrimination.' Mr Jones told delegates that while the CBI was closely involved in consulting with government on equal opportunities policy, 'we will have lost the battle if we have not put our own house in order.' Mr Jones said that while unemployment had fallen sharply over the past 10 years, discrimination against non-white job applicants remained entrenched. He said it created resentment and was a waste of productive potential, reports the Financial Times(p4).

GOVERNMENT E-ENVOY ATTACKS PUBLIC SERVICES OVER E-GOVENMENT UPTAKE

Andrew Pinder, the government's e-envoy, has attacked public sector bodies for failing to promote the uptake of online services. Mr Pinder told delegates at the CBI conference yesterday that the government was on course to provide all services online by 2005, but that it was 'easy to do that crudely to meet targets.' The real test, he said, was for online services 'to be used ... if they are not, we will have pissed away a huge amount of public money.' Referring to attempts to obtain more funding for government provision of broadband services, he said: 'When I talk to people like Mr Brown (the chancellor) and say we should get broadband out to the majority of the country they come back and say: 'small firms in the big cities are hardly using it',' reports the Financial Times(p3).

AND FINALLY ... TALL, THIN COMMUNICATIONS TOWERS WIN HERITAGE LISTING

Three of the tallest and thinnest buildings in Britain are to enter the country's official heritage as icons of postwar communications technology. The 900ft Emley Moor ITV mast in the Yorkshire Pennines, is one of the newly-distinguished, once-workaday buildings including London's BT Tower, better known as the Post Office Tower. Less exalted, but equally successful at meeting English Heritage's demand for 'exacting standards of design and construction, performing a specific function while being sensitive to its surroundings,' is the county police communications tower at Aykley Heads, Durham, reports The Guardian(p9).

by assistant editor Neil Watson

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