Planning system needs an overhaul

AT long last the government is considering a much-needed overhaul of a system which seems unable to move into the 21st century.I am talking about the planning system of course.

AT long last the government is considering a much-needed overhaul of a system which seems unable to move into the 21st century.

I am talking about the planning system of course.

I must emphasise it is the system that is at fault - council planning officers are among the most hard-working and conscientious people I have ever met. But they have to operate under bizarre guidelines which don't seem to be able to distinguish between a planning application for a conservatory or a nuclear power station!

It is astonishing that a householder has to pay a four-figure fee and go through weeks of bureaucracy in order to obtain planning permission for a small extension to his or her home.

I know a couple who wanted to extend their home slightly a few years ago. The extension didn't overlook anyone else's home. It was perfectly in character with their home, and frankly you'd have been hard pressed to notice it was an extension and not an original part of the house.

Why on earth was it necessary to take up planning officers' valuable time to look through those plans when council time could far better be used considering other larger developments?

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And there also needs to be a better way at looking at larger proposals which can have a regional or national dimension.

Is it really sensible to ask a local planning authority to consider an application for nuclear power station?

Everyone knows the final decision on whether and where to build a third station, maybe at Sizewell, will be taken at a national level.

People from areas which would be directly affected by a major development should certainly be invited to make their views known, but is it realistic to expect a local planning authority to make the final decision?

Wouldn't it have been better to say right at the beginning that a government inspector would make the decision on SnOasis, and that Mid Suffolk Council should merely express an opinion? That is effectively what has happened at the enquiry.

Such a procedure would have saved months of discussion and we may already have a decision by now.

Local planning officers certainly have an important role to play in ensuring medium scale development in an area is appropriate - large decisions that would need to go to central government are only likely to come up once or twice a year in most parts of the country.

And freed from the nitty-gritty of non-controversial minor issues, planning officers would be freed to do what they are really good at, providing a framework for sensible development of the communities they serve.

AFTER 15 years of reporting on Ipswich and Suffolk councils, I've handed over my treasured place in the chamber to my colleague Neil Puffett.

I'm moving on to cover environmental and transport issues for the Star - although as many people have been quick to point out you can't get much more political than that as a subject.

I was very surprised to be presented with a special front page of the Ipswich council publication, The Angle, at the recent annual council meeting - and very appreciative of the kind words from council leader Liz Harsant.

When I started covering politics I was told that if people start being too nice to you then that's the time to move on - so now it's time for someone else to sit through council meetings.

But before my contacts get too misty-eyed, I'd like to warn them that my current affairs column will remain, although it may well take on a green tinge.

And I'm still going to be listening for gossip from across the area. My job may have changed but I'm not going anywhere!

ONE of the more puzzling quirks of the American political system is that a new president is elected in November, but doesn't actually take office until January the following year.

Before the days of rapid mass communication he didn't actually take over until March - but two months always seems like a long time for a country to be in limbo with effectively two leaders.

But that is precisely the daft situation we have in Britain at the moment - with one major difference.

Frankly politics goes into hibernation over the Christmas and New Year period. There are no major government summits, meetings or big decisions scheduled to be taken at that time of the year.

But over the next few weeks Britain will be taking part in the G8 summit and a very important EU summit - and who is going to be in charge?

Will it be Tony Blair, who is leaving office at the end of June, or Gordon Brown - who is now confirmed as his successor?

How on earth can Mr Blair make any decisions about the future of this country when it is not only known that he won't be around to implement them, but his successor is now known?

We are now stuck in a sort of toy town world of politics where one prime minister is jetting around the world telling everyone how lucky we were to have him for the last ten years and the other is travelling around Britain telling us how wonderful he is going to be for the next few years.

If anything happens between now and June 27, don't expect either of them to make any crucial decisions - they will effectively be made by the civil service.

Frankly it would do the country good if Mr Blair formally moved out of Number 10 now to let the real prime minister take over. Then he could continue his world farewell tour without having to let the awkward business of running the country get in the way.

And our interests as the world and European summits could be represented by someone who is going to be around for longer than a few weeks.