The Coalition has pulled off the remarkable trick of making land use planning interesting. As someone who worked in a local authority planning department early in my career I know the process can be deeply dull, but the battle over planning reform has demonstrated that the outcomes are not.
It's hard not to enjoy the spectacle of Dame Fiona Reynolds in gladiatorial combat with Eric Pickles, but what makes it especially compelling is the nature of the issues the dispute is raising. The purpose of planning is inextricably linked to the big question of what role the state should have in shaping our environment, and may explain why some ministers have chosen to raise the stakes so rapidly in this dispute.
When Mr Pickles tells visitors to his office that he has a loaded gun ready to shoot anyone who proposes a replacement for defunct regional spatial strategies, he's reflecting his belief that the state should never get involved in the sort of planning that involves drawing lines on maps, as well as his unique negotiating style. Similarly the chancellor has signalled that the planning proposals are at the heart of his political mission to generate growth by releasing business from regulation. But it's not clear that this project will work at either a policy or political level.
It's not just conservationists and greens who want the state to use planning to balance different interests. It matters to business too. Many loath local planning and will sympathise with government but they should be careful what they wish for. As the CBI point out repeatedly business needs certainty that vital infrastructure can be delivered in a timely and efficient manner. That's hard to do without the strategic mapping that these reforms scrap, and impossible without public consent, which is being undermined by this dispute.
If government chooses to make short-term economic growth the primary objective of the planning system, we will definitely get poorer environmental outcomes, but we could lower the UK's economic productivity as well. We may get more retail parks and freight depots but other businesses will suffer increased congestion and more uncertainty about the energy and transport infrastructure they need to grow. This is a dispute in which all sides could lose. The government would be wise to go back to first principles if it wants to find a solution that works for the economy and the environment.
Matthew Spencer is director of the Green Alliance