Watford's MP accused Watford Council of failing to challenge housing targets - hours before a vote on future development.

But Liberal Democrats hit back furiously, accusing Conservative Dean Russell of trying to make a political point with an announcement of a conversation with a senior minister.

Councillors met last night to discuss Watford's local plan, which sets out a list of sites and policies that will help meet housing targets over the next 15 years.

But the meeting was overshadowed by a discussion about a letter all councillors received from Mr Russell "just hours" before the full council meeting at 7.30pm.

In it, he claimed the Liberal Democrat-run council had missed the chance to challenge government housing targets in the plan.

Mr Russell outlined information he had received  "following recent correspondence with the housing minister", along with a question he asked in Parliament earlier that day.

He wrote that it had been confirmed to him that the housing target produced by the Government is "only the starting point" for local authorities in identifying housing need.

Mr Russell said the local plan is an "opportunity to present a reasonable and credible alternative option" and that any "challenging" of housing targets should be stated within the local plan.

He continued: "Having read Watford's local plan, there do not appear to be any explicit wording to challenge the housing needs target or to raise concerns more generally...tonight risks 'locking in' the current housing targets."

The letter ends: "I hope this information helps to clarify what the vote means for our town and I would politely urge you to consider the contents of this letter when voting this evening."

Reacting to Mr Russell's letter ahead of last night's meeting, Binita Mehta-Parmar, deputy chairman of Watford Conservatives, said: "It is perplexing that despite persistently slamming the Government, the Local Plan for which the Lib Dems are responsible, does not appear to challenge the target nor present a credible alternative for the Planning Inspectorate to consider."

Watford Observer: Construction at Ascot Road in West Watford, which will include a 24-storey tower. Credit: Lynda Bullock/Watford Observer Camera ClubConstruction at Ascot Road in West Watford, which will include a 24-storey tower. Credit: Lynda Bullock/Watford Observer Camera Club

But at the council meeting, both Lib Dem and Labour members were highly critical of Mr Russell's letter, in particular its timing.

Former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate Cllr Ian Stotesbury said: "I’m giving this statement to really highlight how disrespectful it is for a Member of Parliament, in my opinion, to wait so late in a process that’s so important for Watford and try and make a political point in the process.

"In his letter he tried to allege that housing targets are the beginning of a conversation. Well that conversation has been going on for a long time."

Cllr Stotesbury accused Watford's MP of failing to "publicly" challenge Watford's housing targets, which are 787 per year over the next 15 years.

Watford Observer: Cllr Ian Stotesbury speaking at last night's full council meetingCllr Ian Stotesbury speaking at last night's full council meeting

He added: "The local plan is vital to ensuring we have local policies on sustainability, affordability, social provision, and so many other things. If the local plan fails to meet government demands…then government reserves the right to reject that local plan.

"Unfortunately I think this (letter) is empty political rhetoric and I think this council should strongly oppose such political football on something so important for our residents."

Mayor Peter Taylor described the MP's letter as "highly misleading", adding: "Let’s just remember the Conservatives tripled Watford’s housing targets. The Conservative minister then told me off that we weren't building enough homes.

"At the very last minute, the MP for the area pretends somehow that the council has all this power, that somehow the housing target doesn’t really matter.

"I think any politician who pretends there is a magic wand that somehow things could be easy or there’s some easy solution to this is being completely disingenuous.

"Without a strong policy control (in our local plan) we’d lose power. With this plan we can at least channel locations most suitable for development in Watford."

Watford Observer: Mayor Peter Taylor at the meetingMayor Peter Taylor at the meeting

Labour member Cllr Richard Smith said he agreed with Cllr Stotesbury's statement and the need for a local plan, which was echoed by his colleague, Cllr Khan.

Cllr Khan also used the meeting to demand the Lib Dems show "leadership".

He said: "It (the council) allows developments that contravene the local plan. It allows developments that don’t meet social and affordable housing targets. It allows buildings that are high high towers, skyscrapers. It needs to show a bit of leadership. It is allowing Taylors towers to be built left right and centre."

Watford Observer: Cllr Asif Khan at the meetingCllr Asif Khan at the meeting

Cllr Stephen Johnson, who is responsible for planning, said viability reports mean the council can be left "stuck" when it comes to making decisions on applications that fail to meet affordable housing targets. He even warned challenging the viability reports - which he blamed on the Government - can leave the council "open to bankruptcy".

Following the debate, council chairman Cllr Bilqees Mauthoor asked members to vote on whether to take the local plan onto the next stage - examination from a Government planning inspector.

The plan was passed by the ruling Lib Dem party. Labour abstained - group leader Cllr Nigel Bell said after the meeting his party abstained because some of the policies within the local plan "don't go far enough".