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Despite Britain's long run of economic growth, the planning system has long been judged to be inefficient. This wee...
Despite Britain's long run of economic growth, the planning system has long been judged to be inefficient. This week's white paper, Planning for a sustainable future, is heavily influenced by Gordon Brown's view of the planning system, which the prime minister-in-waiting sees as an impediment to the country's continuing economic success.

Major projects such as airports get caught up in protracted planning inquiries. Even when a big project finally gets permission, there is a risk it will be halted by a final appeal. With countries from China to Abu Dhabi rapidly developing their cities, Britain needs a planning system that makes rational development possible.

Planning for a sustainable future would, if implemented, radically change local government's powers. A new, appointed, quango would determine the biggest planning applications for national infrastructure such as major roads, ports, wind farms, airports and power stations.

The decision to create a quasi-judicial commission suggests the government is fed up with delays. The clear intention is to make it easier to push through big projects. Local authorities 'will have a strong role to play in representing their communities'. But they will no longer have the power to refuse planning permissions for such national projects.

A commission will remove decisions from ministers as well: the government is responding to the public's mistrust of politicians. But there was surely an argument for finding out why politicians are so disliked, or for improving the plodding processes that take applications to Whitehall and town halls? Anyway, the decisions will always remain political: remember Manchester's casino, determined by an independent body but where Parliament stepped in after the decision?

Less 'red tape' is promised, though the fact the white paper itself is 220 pages long, with several supporting documents (one of which - ironically on microgeneration - runs to a further 100 or so pages) suggests that efforts to increase brevity may be unsuccessful. Promises to devolve power are very tentative: 'We propose to explore devolution of some non-national infrastructure decisions' to local authorities, though there are no actual proposals.

The problem with the existing system is that councils make decisions without any possibility they will receive additional local taxation as a result of granting permissions. This is an issue Sir Michael Lyons identified as an 'incentives' problem. Aligning decisions about planning permission with the tax benefits that flow as a result would create a more rational and speedy planning process.

Land-use planning has long been one of local government's most important powers. The government appears set to take a decisive step towards the nationalisation of the planning system. If the public feels it is denied access to a fair voice in local decisions, there could be a serious political reaction. Imagine Swampy coupled with the two million who signed the road-pricing petition.

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