Welcome to Britain's new planning system
Deputy prime minister John Prescott seems sure to shake up the planning system this year with announcements, rule changes and legal reform. The most significant development will be legislation to shake up the planning system – government officials expect to be given enough parliamentary time to get the bill enacted by the summer.

The government says the law will lead to a "fairer, faster and more efficient" planning system. Key to the new dispensation is the abolition of county structure plans. Instead, only local and regional-based plans – "local development frameworks" and "regional spatial strategies" – will be implemented. The government believes that the often conflicting aims of county plans have hindered development, and that their removal will help get more houses built (see "Difficult neighbours", page 39).

Not everyone agrees. Former House Builders Federation chief executive Roger Humber warns that there will be problems translating existing plans into the new system, especially since there is no consensus on how LDFs will be drawn up.

A controversial proposal is for business planning zones. These are London Docklands-style free-fire zones, where planning permission is waived; they were included at the insistance of chancellor Gordon Brown to boost areas likely to be hit by a recession. In a recent briefing, the Council for the Protection of Rural England warned that they would "undermine the role of planning in controlling and improving the quality of development" and be "a recipe for unsustainable development in town and country".

On top of the white paper, Prescott has warned housebuilders that he will no longer accept low-density development in the South-east. The gruff former ship steward believes that 200,000 homes can be built in the Thames Gateway alone and has announced that he will call in any development in such regions that does not have at least 30 dwellings a hectare.

But one planning consultant recently said: "Prescott keeps wittering on about densities of 400 per hectare in Barcelona. I can understand the 30 units per hectare requirement for inner cities, but he's got a blanket policy across the country. It creates terrible burdens on transport and facilities."