The government’s wildlife watchdog has called in top QCs to defend its moratorium on new housing across a large stretch of the Home Counties.

Natural England has imposed a clampdown on development across Berkshire, Hampshire and Surrey. The ban is designed to safeguard ground nesting birds, such as the Dartford Warbler, which the conservation quango says are threatened by recreational use of their habitat.

Richard Drabble and Graham Machin, Natural England’s QCs, have produced a legal opinion casting doubt on the compromise plan published on 23 February this year in Building.

Planning inspector Peter Burley recommended that developers building 10 or more homes within five kilometres of the special protection area boundary should have to provide an equivalent amount of recreational open space as the land they build on.

Drabble says Burley’s package does not meet the requirements of the EU’s birds directive. He says all developments should be subject to open space requirements and not just those containing 10 or more homes.

But Burley hit back this week with a report rebutting Natural England’s legal opinion.

Pete Errington, the south-east regional director of the Home Builders Federation (HBF), backed Burley’s report. He said: “This new response is a further vindication of the HBF’s argument that the delivery plan was not a delivery plan, but was designed to thwart development.”