27/03/2012 09:45 BST

Government Launches Finalised Shake-Up Of Planning System Amid Environmental Concerns

The government has announced the final version of new planning rules, in a move to replace the "too expensive and too complicated" planning system, with a one that ministers say will give local people a greater say.

But critics of the new guidelines say the "assumed presumption" that sustainable projects should be rubber stamped by local authorities threatens hundres of square miles of greenfield land.

Greg Clark, decentralisation and cities minister, told MPs that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) would give "unprecedented power" to local communities, encourage growth and create extra jobs.

Clarke declared that the new framework would eliminate the "sclerosis" in the process and replace regulations that were "mediocre, insensitive and detract[ed] from the character of the local environment". He also claimed it "discouraged investment and holds back the recovery".

"People have come to assume any change will be negative" he said. The new framework will have an "explicit presumption" to favour "sustainable development". The reforms will also, he claimed, "recognise the intrinsic value and beauty of the countryside".

Mr Clark outlined a number of changes to the NPPF in an attempt to answer concerns sparked by the draft version of the reforms that were published last July.

They include an explicit emphasis on "brownfield first", which requires councils to favour previously used land for new development over green-field sites and a clearer definition of "sustainable development". It will also favour town centres for development.

But questions remain about how "natural beauty" will be defined when considering planning applications on greenfield land. Some fear these decisions could still be subject to lengthy legal challenges.

Hillary Benn, shadow communities secretary, attacked Clark's plans as "uncertainty and chaos". He dismissed the "ill-defined" support for "sustainable development" and complained at the government's speed in bringing in these changes.

"The final version is coming into force today, even before the House has had a chance to vote on it" he said, questioning whether donors to the Conservative Party may have had an influence in the changes.

Benn seized on the fact that the Department for Communities and Local Government has failed to update the list of who it's held meetings with for nine months, despite the ministerial code recommending it be updated every three months.

Clarke had to fend off other Labour MPs, who took the chance to ask about what influence any donors to the Conservative Party may have had over shaping the NPFF.

Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party, accused the government of prioritising "company profits" over "high environmental standards".

Ruth Davis from Greenpeace said:

"There is a flawed assumption behind this assault on the planning system by George Osborne – he thinks that we can boost the economy by uprooting decades of protection for the natural habitat and the countryside. This is misguided, dangerous and wrong, and appears to be based on little more than some private, cosy chats he has had with big developers.”

"While today’s concessions will provide some short term breathing space for local people seeking to protect the wildlife and places they love, the final test of this policy will be the types of development finally given approval.

"If in the coming months we start to see the development of projects that burden communities with more traffic, noise and pollution, suck up scarce local water resources, or destroy precious countryside, not only will it be a political disaster for the Government – they will also be guilty of undermining the future.”

But John Cridland, director-general at the CBI, was more supportive:

"Future generations will be thankful that the Government has held its nerve on this. Having a presumption in favour of sustainable development gets the balance right between supporting jobs and growth, and serving the interests of the environment and society.

"The new framework hands the responsibility back to local communities to decide where new homes, businesses and infrastructure to support them should be built. So the onus is on local authorities to work with people and businesses in their area to develop suitable plans as quickly as possible.

"Let's be clear, this is not an invitation to concrete over Britain, as some would have us believe. For too long, our planning regime acted as a drag on growth, and this framework lets people decide the future for themselves."