A move has been made to allow local communities to contest public planning on environmental grounds as part of new Scottish Executive legislation.
The Environmental Assessment Bill would radically change Scotland's planning system by putting all public sector plans under environmental scrutiny.
It would let people challenge all kinds of public projects that potentially threaten the countryside or wildlife.
The legislation is set to be introduced into parliament in January 2005.
'Leading the way'
Launching the bill, Environment Minister Ross Finnie said: "These proposals put Scotland ahead of Europe in the protection we afford the environment.
"Environmental assessment will bring greater public involvement in the decision-making process on all major public plans and give powers to communities and others to challenge those plans on environmental grounds.
"We are placing the environment at the heart of public policy - forcing public bodies to consider any environmental impact at the concept stage.
Ross Finnie: "Greater public involvement"
"With greater public scrutiny we can better avoid the mistakes of the past that have so blighted communities and ensure the environmental costs of decisions made today are not borne by future generations."
The executive hopes to save millions of pounds and improve the living environment by preventing such things as the chemical contamination of land or the breakdown of biodiversity through the mass plantation of forests.
Scottish National Party spokesman Richard Lochhead backed the legislation and said: "Governments have to practise what they preach and that is why it is vital the public sector is held to account over its impact on Scotland's environment.
"The key is to ensure this new legislation is carefully monitored, preferably independently and that communities with genuine concerns have their say."
Friends of the Earth Scotland chief executive Duncan McLaren added: "We must ensure the legislation provides real teeth to redesign or even reject those public plans and strategies that would inflict environmental injustice on communities in Scotland or elsewhere.
"The real tests will come when the new system is applied to Scotland's economic development and transport programmes."
However, the Green Party said the new bill did not go far enough.
Environment spokesman Mark Ruskell said: "If the law is going to be as powerful a tool as is claimed, then it would probably scrap huge sections of the executive's entire Partnership Agreement, especially the aim of putting economic growth above real quality of life in a healthy environment.
"Ministers don't need an environmental assessment consultation to tell them that new motorway building and promoting more air travel will increase traffic levels and cause more climate change pollution.
"The executive will be taken seriously on the environment if it cancels the M74 extension, or commits to reducing traffic levels, or sets targets for reducing energy use, or even just says no to GM.
"The bill is potentially significant, but meanwhile the executive continues to pay lip service to sustainable development policies."