The fate of the draft National Planning Policy Framework could be determined at the Conservative Party Conference next month after the stakes of the debate were ratcheted ever higher.
A group of up to 80 MPs and peers met earlier this week to discuss opposition to the draft document, which seeks to simplify planning policy and introduce the controversial “presumption in favour of sustainable development”.
They are set to take the fight to Chancellor George Osborne, communities secretary Eric Pickles and planning minister Greg Clark when the party convenes in Manchester on 2 October.
Their meeting followed accusations in the Daily Telegraph that Mr Clark was colluding with property developers after the paper printed a leaked email from the British Property Federation which said it had “earned more brownie points than we could ever imagine” by helping him.
The email admitted Mr Clark was “deeply concerned” at the level of opposition provoked by the National Trust and claimed the minister was worried Number 10 would be scared into another policy U-turn, similar to that on the forests sell-off.
It said: “The upshot of all this is that… Greg Clark is delighted with the BPF and hugely grateful for our effort.
“He is of the opinion that the Chancellor will stand firm in the face of opposition from National Trust members in the shires - but he doesn’t believe we can afford to let up and should seize every opportunity to press the case for planning reform.”
BPF chief executive Liz Peace offered a stern rebuttal to the newspaper’s report, dismissing the accusations of collusion, arguing “it’s simply us doing our job”.
Ms Peace said: “I don’t think it is unreasonable for a minister to have said that he was pleased we were mobilising support.
“As for ‘brownie points’, it is always good to be able to support the government when they are doing something that we approve of and we would like to think that this would at least mean we are listened to in the future when we have less supportive comments to make - though we are not naïve enough to think that that would actually turn out to be the case.”
The dispute followed a meeting between Mr Clark and green campaigners last week, after which the National Trust said it would not enter further talks until the government issued a clear statement “clarifying that the planning system is not there principally to promote economic development”.
Lobbyists have speculated that ministers are unlikely to perform a fully fledged U-turn on the NPPF, despite the vocal campaign against it, as the policy enjoys strong Treasury support.
One said: “They’ll probably offer an olive branch to the National Trust, possibly a strengthening of the wording surrounding the preference to build on brownfield land first, but the indication seems to be that the much-criticised ‘presumption’ will remain.
“Also, Eric Pickles is a different animal to Caroline Spelman who made the forestry sell-off U-turn.
“He’s very unlikely to bow to pressure and will fight his corner much harder.”
National Trust external affairs director Ben Cowell told CN the group had “been constructive in our approach with government, and will be coming forward with our own practical suggestions for how the references to brownfield could be strengthened”.
But he said the Trust wanted assurances that the detail of the NPPF “will not be undermined by an overall approach to planning that weights it too heavily in favour of economics above all else”.
The Trust has 3.9 million members and has developed more than 900 homes for commercial sale over the past 10 years.