The preliminary skirmishes before the Conservative Party conference this year looked like a deliberate attempt to confuse the public. Various factions broke their silence to snipe at government positions on economic growth, Europe and the countryside, while loyalists derided the critics. One minister reportedly chose to confront the shire county attack on the programme of planning reform with a vulgar expletive, while apparently dismissing the Big Society as "not a government programme". David Cameron himself hotly denied that he would wish the countryside harm, but his henchmen stood by the contention that planning impedes growth vital to economic recovery.
Reports emerged that increased council house sales would be encouraged through bigger price discounts as long as new public housing is created to compensate for the resulting reduction in the public sector stock. But social housing commentators concentrated their fire on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which abandons the requirement that private housing developments of 15 or more properties should include a proportion of affordable units. It looks as though affordable homes will not be the priority that they should be and that once again they will tend to be corralled into estates rather than mixed with private homes.
A suggestion that developers might be permitted to acquire housing land but only pay for it after selling the development appeared to quieten housebuilder anxieties, until it was realised that targeting the policy on brownfield areas would trigger expensive upfront remedial costs. And despite constant government claims that there is no more public money available for housing, communities secretary Eric Pickles miraculously found £250 million for a new weekly household waste collection regime just when it looked like the public had learned to manage with less frequent provision.
It is sobering to note that, even as delegates were arriving in Manchester, the consultation on draft local planning regulations that will put the reforms of the Localism Bill and the NPPF into practice was entering its final week. The government claims that by "cutting red tape from the process of preparing local plans" they will ensure that "the whole process is as effective and as simple as possible". But they will surely mystify the electorate as a whole by declaring that they are "shifting the emphasis away from reporting to Whitehall and onto reporting to local people", when the reality is that most power will remain with local councils and their plans. The consultation document openly admits that "the basic process of plan preparation is largely unchanged", adding defensively "in order to meet EU requirements".
So should planners now relax, rejoicing in the survival of the local authority plan? In circumstances where few of the public feel enthused by the prospect of becoming amateur plan-makers in their spare time and the whole contrivance of neighbourhood forums is so blatantly vulnerable to self-interested commercial takeover, that would surely be wrong.
Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues and TCPA trustee.