Planning move threatens to split Executive

MIKE Rumbles, the maverick Liberal Democrat MSP, has sparked a potentially damaging split in the Scottish Executive by calling for changes to a flagship bill.

Mr Rumbles has resurrected the debate over reform of the planning system by tabling an amendment to the Planning Bill. It would provide a right of appeal to anybody affected by a proposed development.

The move will delight environmentalists but will dismay the business community, which believes such a right will ensnare developments in interminable planning rows.

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However, the political impact of Mr Rumbles' amendment may go much deeper.

The coalition parties had managed to establish an uneasy peace over third-party right of appeal. The Liberal Democrats were in favour of enshrining it in the planning process but Labour ministers were against.

The Liberal Democrats were persuaded to support Labour's position in order to keep the coalition together.

Mr Rumbles' amendment will now test Liberal Democrat loyalties again, particularly as his move will be backed by the Greens, the SSP and some SNP MSPs. His only chance of success is to persuade some Liberal Democrat colleagues to support him. But if he gets enough backing to vote through his amendment, it would put the coalition under immense strain.

Mr Rumbles said yesterday: "This is Liberal Democrat policy and I am a Liberal Democrat MSP. I am furthering Liberal Democrat policy."

The MSP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine said he was responding to the plight of a couple in his constituency who were being threatened with a development next to their house and could not appeal against it.

Alan Mitchell, of the CBI in Scotland, said he was disappointed by the move.

A spokesman for the Scottish Executive defended ministers' decision to reject third-party right of appeal. He said: "We want people to have their say when it matters."