The government this week provided the construction industry with the practical detail it had been waiting for on planning reform.

• White paper recommends independent commission to rule on infrastructure projects

• Need for planning permission on small-scale domestic work to be scrapped

• Appeal fee to be introduced

Its planning white paper sets out a number of changes to make the system faster, many of which were mooted in last autumn’s Barker review.

Suggestions include:

  • A commission to decide on large strategic projects such as power stations and airports
  • Cutting the need for planning permission for small scale domestic work
  • The introduction of an appeal fee
  • A reduction in the number of consents needed by a project
  • A reduction in the time allowed to lodge appeals from six months to eight weeks
  • End of the requirement that councils hold a public inquiry into their local plans
  • A restoration of the presumption in favour of development
  • Lifting the cap of £50,000 on planning fees and giving councils powers to set their own fees
  • Reducing the volume and type of applications that have to be referred to the secretary of state
  • A new “need” test on retail development that looks at improving customer choice as well as protecting town centres.
The paper was welcomed by the industry but attacked by environmentalists. The most radical recommendation is the proposal for a commission of experts appointed by the government to make decisions on large infrastructure projects.

The commission is expected to handle between 10 and 25 projects a year, and will take away the power of councils to make their own decisions on those projects. It will mean the end of full-blown public inquiries, which have delayed projects such as Heathrow Terminal 5 for years.

The commission will not have the capacity to deal with all the casework

Caroline Spelman MP

Under the rules of appeal, inspectors would be able to take only written submissions and amend only details.

The commission will be given a nine-month deadline to reach a decision on each project. It will base its decisions on a national policy statement, drawn up by the government, which sets out the projects needed and, in some cases, where they should be.

The statements will cover a period of 10 to 25 years and will be updated every five years.

Hugh Ellis, Friends of the Earth’s planning co-ordinator, said the decision to cut local authorities out of the decision-making process on large infrastructure projects would lead to a revival of anti-development direct action.

In another move that has angered green groups, the paper includes a review of the policy that makes it hard to develop out-of-town shopping centres. It proposes replacing the existing rules, which are based on a measure of whether new retail space is needed, with a test that looks at consumer choice.

Caroline Spelman, the Conservative party’s spokesperson on communities, expressed concerns that the commission would be overloaded. She said: “This will create another bottleneck because the commission will not have the capacity to deal with all the casework.”

Nick Keable, director of development lobbying firm the Saint Consulting Group, said: “The paper is an admission of total failure by the government. It’s quite clear they buggered up last time and they are having a second go at it.”