Downing Street responds to HBF calls to solve housebuilding crisis around Home Counties bird protection area

Ten Downing Street has hosted a crisis meeting to thrash out a solution to English Nature's attempts to block housebuilding across part of the South-east.

Officials from across Whitehall met earlier this month after English Nature objected to all new housebuilding within a five-mile radius of the Surrey Heath Special Protection Area (21 April, page 23).

This has led to the rejection of some housing schemes and fears that councils in Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire will use the directive to block developments to which they are opposed.

The meeting was attended by representatives from No 10, the Treasury, Defra, the DTI and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

It followed letters from the Home Builders Federation to prime minister Tony Blair and chancellor Gordon Brown pleading for swift action to solve the construction crisis resulting from the conservation body's move.

The government's decision to intervene reflects concerns that the issue will affect its target to increase housing provision and the wider economy of the affected areas.

The government designated the Surrey Heath SPA, which cuts across Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire, last month. The SPA is designed to protect the habitats of a number of rare birds, including the nightjar and the Dartford warbler.

The issue is being taken very seriously

DCLG spokesperson

A DCLG spokesperson said: "This issue is being taken very seriously and there have been ongoing meetings with all the agencies involved."

Lesley Creeden, a senior official of the Government Office for the South East, has been put in charge of efforts to resolve the situation. And at a meeting this week, the firm Land Use Consultants presented a list of public-owned sites that could be used to provide open space for birds to nest in.

But sources within housebuilding said the problem was not being addressed with sufficient urgency.

John Slaughter, the HBF's external affairs director, said the organisation had commissioned its own research to challenge the evidence that English Nature has used to justify its hardline policy on new development.

The study will look at alternative measures that English Nature could take to protect the birds' habitats from visitors.

Slaughter said: "We don't feel that enough work has been done to substantiate the mitigation measures that English Nature has proposed."