Watford's MP provoked joy from Conservatives and fury from Liberal Democrats when he pulled a rabbit out of his hat over unpopular housebuilding targets just hours before an important council vote this week.

Watford Borough Council's next local plan identifies land for housing and employment use over the next 15 years, and identifies 61 sites to meet a target of almost 800 homes year.

Facing widespread anger after plans for tower blocks of up to 28 storeys were passed in recent years, the Lib Dems have repeatedly argued the targets are too high and written to the Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick to say so.

So it was quite a coup for Conservatives when MP Dean Russell sent a letter to councillors on Monday with the result of conversations with the Communities Secretary, stating the targets were "only a starting point".

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Depending on your perspective, the timing might either appear to be an audacious political stunt or pure coincidence. It left the council the option of either trying to pause the plan or vote it through. Liberal Democrat councillors voted it through, Labour abstained and there are no Conservative councillors.

According to the Lib Dems, the announcement that the targets were negotiable came as news to them and council officers.

They say the council will not be adding anything to the local plan to challenge the housing targets, pointing to other councils' failure to overturn their targets and arguing it would make no difference to the outcome.

It is worth remembering Watford was punished earlier this year for not meeting housing targets, with the result that there must now be a presumption in favour of development when future applications are decided.

Read more: Watford and Three Rivers failed to meet housing targets

Writing to this paper to explain his motivation, Watford's MP said his intention with the letter was to give this information to councillors as soon as possible. But accompanying the letter with criticism for not challenging the targets does not appear within the spirit of this.

It's also worth noting that a press release from Watford Conservatives slamming the Liberal Democrats for "playing politics with planning" arrived little over an hour later.

Some might argue that Mr Russell could have let councillors and officers know when he received a "recent" letter from the Housing Minister, rather than waiting for a spoken response to the minister, coincidentally on the day of the vote. They might ask why an MP is talking to the government about something as important as this without involving the council.

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Some might say the Liberal Democrats, even given the timing, could have paused the local plan vote. We have asked why they did not.

Politically, it is a win-win for the Conservatives. If the Lib Dems had accepted the MP's word and adjourn the local plan vote, the Conservatives could claim credit. If they stuck with the plan, as they did, they have ignored this advice and "locked in" the unpopular targets.

Objectively, did councillors and officers have any way of knowing it was possible to challenge its housing targets in the local plan from legislation or guidance? If they did, the council missed a trick.

This paper has asked for evidence of anything in legislation or planning guidance that indicates that the targets were a starting point.

Was it possible for the council to pause its local plan to take account of this information without risking consequences from delaying it? If it was, why did it not do so?

The revelation that the targets are "starting points" has implications for other councils. A loophole that enables councils - including Conservative ones - to get out of centrally imposed numbers might be useful in more places than Watford.

But there is a housing shortage. If other councils can now challenge their targets through their local plans, this may mean a drop in the number of homes being built over coming decades.

Looking forward, the main question is whether Mr Russell is right and the target can be challenged and adjusted.

The fact that it has already written to the Housing Secretary notwithstanding, if the council can add to its local plan setting out its desire to challenge the targets, why would it not do so?

If there was always the option of amending the plan later, the whole row is academic and the events of the last week are nothing more than political posturing.

This is where party politics has got us. Conservatives might be overjoyed at their MP scoring a hit on the council, but for people living in the shadow of large new developments, the target is still there. If both sides are sincere about stopping the targets, they should be working together.

It is possible. In 2018, representatives from Homes England came to Watford in a visit arranged by then MP Richard Harrington, also a Conservative, to show how the Lib Dem-run council was trying to meet its targets.

Relations between the council and the new MP have broken down to the point that they are not working together to stop something that most people in the town are opposed to. Both parties will blame each other. Only they are interested.

Looking ahead, if there is a chance to challenge the figures and stop unpopular development, they will have to learn to work together in the interests of the people they are supposed to represent.