Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has been embroiled in controversy through his political career. The Birmingham Post Business Property Forum's opening moments were probably the first occasion though when the forthright MP has sparked a heated debate in his absence.
The catalyst was Mr Prescott's comment last December that "planning must be a positive force to achieve things... not a hundred ways to say 'no'."
Birmingham City Council's planning director, Emrys Jones, wisely chose to get his retaliation in first.
"If you go back to 1947, planning was all about making things happen. Over the years though, that original vision has to some extent been lost," he admitted.
"I think Birmingham planners have been positive and proactive, although we still need to be more 'can do'. Even though we receive some pretty duff schemes, around 82 per cent are still approved."
However, St Modwen Developments' director, Derek West, wasn't impressed by either that figure, or Prescott's sound-bite.
"In 1947, the Government thought it could do everything. There was nationalisation, the creation of the NHS and much more.
"The real problem is that the Government still believes it can do everything and interferes hugely in the planning process."
Mr West recalled the many occasions on which his colleague, development surveyor Mike Timmins, returned from planning meetings in despair.
"His view is that many planning officers simply don't care. They go home at 5.30pm and just aren't bothered."
GVA Grimley partner Colin Bell was swift to offer support for Mr West's trenchant opinions. "Planners are often suspicious of the reasons behind developments, and don't even seem to understand the profit motive," he suggested.
"I agree that planning began as an enabling activity, but it is now widely seen as a force that is more negative than positive."
Mr Bell believed the Government had made the planning process more cumbersome by adding such aspects as the environment, economic growth impact, and even social inclusion criteria to the agenda.
"Many authorities also squeeze too hard and try to get too much out of a planning application," he added.
The main concern of Mitchell & Butlers' group building manager, Clive Radford, was the differing levels of support from local authority planners.
"We manage a portfolio of around 2,000 buildings across the country, and get so frustrated by variations in the standard of service," he said. Nor was there respite for the embattled Jones when the forum's host, CB Richard Ellis director Jason Tait, made his contribution.
"The planning structure is so complex that planners now find it easier to say 'no'." He believes many local authorities have dramatically changed their approach to planning duties.
"I looked at an application from only a few years ago, and it had just four conditions attached," said Mr Tait.
"We got a similar scheme through the other day and it had 26 conditions. You only need to fall at one hurdle to have the entire plan refused."
Mr Jones was clearly dismayed at the suggestions that planners - at least in Birmingham - had a perverse desire to strangle applications with red tape.
"The role of myself is to facilitate the economic regeneration of this city," he retorted.
"Often a scheme is delayed because either the property market changes, or the developer alters the nature of their proposal."
An apparent paradox lies at the heart of the Government's new planning strategy, according to its recent Green Paper. Labour repeatedly promises to speed the process, but is equally determined to introduce wider community involvement.
Mr Radford was swift to highlight the likely outcome of the latter policy. "There is likely to be an increased conflict of views between the councillors and the planning professionals," he suggested.
"Many more minority groups will become involved and the debates will be much more emotional."
Mr Radford also fears the growing impact of local politics on the planning process.
"The majority of times that we end up in public inquiries is because the councillor responds to pressures from his constituents.
"If elections are coming up, they will want to keep themselves in power and react accordingly."
Jason Tait too identified looming tensions between an authority's elected members and its planning officers.
"Community involvement is important, but will bring other considerations into play," he said.
"The public's views are often not driven by real or even measurable planning concerns." However, he believes developers should engage in discussions with the local community before submitting an application, especially on a major scheme.
Mr Radford was unconvinced. "Why do we need more community involvement? Does the public not trust its elected officials."
His was clearly a minority view though, as other forum members spoke strongly in favour of the government's proposal.
"A developer should be doing all they can to consult with the community, the residents, the Chamber of Trade, and other local organisations," said West, with evident conviction. "They must do everything in advance to head off future opposition from the Government Office, not least because if a major scheme is called in, it will cost the thick end of #1 million.
"Most objections are because people don't understand a scheme, so every effort must be made to ensure they realise its benefits."
"If time is spent well in advance, it will pay dividends later in the process," added GVA Grimley's Colin Bell. Mr Radford wasn't mollified by the comments of his peers though.
"I often wonder at the relationships between officers and members of the planning committee, especially at public inquiries when a case officer can't justify why an application has been turned down," he said.
He even expressed a desire to have councillors who have voted down a proposal forced to appear before the subsequent inquiry, though the idea went unsupported. The beleaguered Emrys Jones was swift to respond. He claimed less than one per cent of applications recommended by planning officers in Birmingham were rejected - though the statistic did cause murmurs of disbelief.
"We live in a society that expects more involvement on a greater range of issues than ever before," said Mr Jones.
"Community involvement is about regulating development in the public interest, although clearly there is a tension in terms of the speed of a decision."
He suggested that many developers lacked the enlightened approach displayed by St Modwen.
"They are missing an opportunity to be seen to be listening and responding, before the final application is submitted."
Mr Jones conceded a point from the opening debate though concerning the quality of planning service offered by local authorities.
"I'm not speaking in favour of the detail of the reforms, but there was a need for regulation because the system had to better engage the public," he admitted.
"Some authorities had been doing it well, but many hadn't."