Cutting back on red tape should benefit both firms and communities
Economist Kate Barker has recommended a radical shake-up of planning laws in England, in a review commissioned by HM Treasury.
Why change the planning process?
Calls for reform have mainly come from businesses, which say they are held back by red tape in general, and the existing bureaucratic planning system in particular.
Eight out of 10 companies say planning process is key to boosting their competitiveness, according to the Barker review.
Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown agree that economic growth in England is held back by the inflexible and slow processing of planning applications from businesses eager to build everything from a warehouse or new workshop to waste facilities or power stations.
So is this all about giving in to pressure from companies?
Well, it is supposed to be an efficiency drive that should benefit not only companies, but people at local and national level as well.
Central to Ms Barker's approach is a belief that any building project that has little or no impact on others should be given the go-ahead, whether it is a private extension, the restoration of an empty building in a town, or even in some cases the development of low-value farmland within green belt areas.
At grassroots level, the idea is that local authorities should spend less time dealing with planning applications for conservatories, loft conversions, new windows and such like, and instead rely on existing building regulations to curb excesses.
This should make it easier for home owners to make improvements, while at the same time freeing up time to speed up applications from companies pushing through projects that would aid economic growth and job creation.
Would it be easier to get plans approved?
In some cases, yes.
For example, small commercial developments with little wider impact should no longer require planning permission, and applications relating to, say, private extensions where the neighbours do not mind should be rushed through the planning process.
Moreover, local authorities should be encouraged to review the "urban fringes" of green belt boundaries to allow what Ms Barker describes as "sustainable development" beyond towns and cities
With regards to commercial developments, planners would no longer consider whether projects are economically viable; instead the risk should be with those who want to build, with market forces ensuring that unviable projects would be less likely to be built.
However, planners would still assess whether projects are socially and environmentally sound, and could reject buildings where the cost to society outweighs the benefit.
So would most decisions still be made locally?
Yes, local government and regional development agencies would still be deeply involved, only rather than busying themselves processing bitty planning applications they would be required to spend more time on big-picture stuff.
Hence, rather than making deals with local builders - along the lines of a sports facility being built in return for the permission to build an estate - local planners should look at broader benefits to the local economy.
This could involve public-private partnerships that raise the stakes of any projects, both in terms of scale and scope.
To make this more attractive for local authorities, there should be mechanisms that help them share the benefits of local economic growth.
Will the planners be given any tools to work with?
In towns and cities, Barker recommends reform to business rate relief for empty property, perhaps along with a charge on vacant and derelict sites.
Also, prospective developers should no longer have to demonstrate the need for development.
And the appeals system should be speeded up, through a new, well resourced Planning Mediation Service that would ensure appeals are completed within six months.
What about really big projects that benefit the nation rather than the locals?
Applications relating to projects of national importance - such as the building of new nuclear power stations, railways or road networks - would be handled by a new centralised planning system that is expected to be less sympathetic to pressure groups' calling for lengthy planning enquiries.
Ms Barker is a member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee. She was commissioned by the Treasury to look at how planning policy could better deliver economic growth alongside sustainable development goals.