John Prescott has more to worry about right now than his deteriorating relationship with housebuilders (pages 24-25). Planning chaos is a political sideshow alongside the main drama of the firefighters' dispute and the threat – amid a London teachers' strike – of a new winter of discontent. But, although no lives will be lost in a planning wrangle, the consequences might be just as profound in the long run. Indeed, the crises are not unrelated. The teachers were striking to double their London allowance – partly because of their inability to afford a house.
Housebuilders may not get a look-in this week, with the TV cameras trained on the picket lines, but Prescott cannot ignore them for long. After all, he fired the first salvo at his own urban summit, when he assailed housebuilders for providing too few homes at too low a density. Now we discover that he had just rejected three applications to build 1200 homes because they contravened the letter of the PPG3 planning guidance. One might argue, in Prescott's defence, that rules are rules. But in the Byzantine world of planning, it's not as simple as that. Local authorities say they don't know how to interpret those rules until Prescott publishes his planning white paper next year. Take Solihull council: it told Wimpey that its Marston Green scheme did not need any affordable homes. Yet Prescott then turned it down for just that reason. Does such confusion between ministers and local authorities smack of the firefighters' dispute, or what?

Time is running out. Since 1997, completions have plummeted more than 20,000 to their lowest level since the 1920s. Unless Prescott gets moving, housebuilders will cash in their land, leaving an industry too small to build the 39,000 homes a year in the South-east he is demanding.

The deputy prime minister can start by recognising that he needs housebuilders as much as they need him, and by publicly dispelling the suspicion that he blames them for inflating market values by sitting on land. As Building columnist and housing expert Roger Humber pointed out, this can't be true because the amount of land with planning consent is decreasing. Nor would it make business sense, because land without consent is, as Humber says, "fields of cow pasture". The easiest way to open up the market is for Prescott to approve more schemes. If prices are indeed inflated, that's only because the paucity of approvals is creating monopoly sellers.

Prescott must also be more realistic in his demands. Just as he scoffs at firefighters for demanding 40% more pay, it is a similar fantasy to expect housebuilders to deliver up to 50% affordable housing, densities of 30 homes per hectare, and 60% of developments on brownfield land. Prescott's strictures also ignore other vital issues, such as transport. At Barking in east London, a pivotal location for Prescott's flagship Thames Gateway development area, Bellway is refusing to build at higher densities unless the Docklands Light Railway is routed there.

Planning is fiendishly complex, and a clear policy will require every bit as careful negotiation as the firefighters' pay. In this instance, though, it is Prescott who has erected a metaphorical picket line – against the very development he says he wants. The talking must start, firefighters' strike or not. Still, at least housebuilders won't wake you up in the middle of the night, John.