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.