House boom comes up against environmental brick wall

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What the Thames Basin Heaths issue shows is that housing development in the South-east is now starting to come up against environmental limits, a leading countryside campaigner says.

If housebuilding continues unchecked, overdevelopment will eventually deprive the region of the very attractions that make people want to live there, said Henry Oliver, head of planning and local government for the Campaign to Protect Rural England. The forthcoming South-east Plan, setting out the next 20 years of development for Britain's economic powerhouse region, which has just been drafted by the regional assembly, envisages 29,000 houses a year being built for the next 20 years - a total of 580,000.

"It is already an extremely overcrowded region, so environmental limits are more likely to crop up," Mr Oliver said. "There are special environmental constraints in relation to things like water supplies, and we are bumping up against these more quickly in the South-east than in other growth areas. Now with the Thames Basin Heaths, almost by accident we are coming up against an actual, legislatively binding, internationally backed obstacle to unsustainable planning."

Mr Oliver said the prosperity of the South-east was enormously dependent on people thinking of it as an attractive place to live. "As there is more and more pressure to develop, a tipping point is getting closer, where eventually people will say, 'this is a shitty place, let's go and live somewhere else'," he said.

"Environmental capacity is a political issue - how much are we prepared to soil our own nest, before we stop doing it?"

Housebuilders in the region take a different view. They feel that English Nature is "gold- plating" its responsibilities and insisting on too big an exclusion cordon around the Special Protection Area (SPA).

It is certainly the case that the 5km zone is producing some bizarre effects. David Ullathorne, who runs Rectory Homes, based in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire, has been caught in the planning freeze over two developments in Sunningdale and Ascot, in Berkshire. He said: "I have one site, developing 12 apartments in Ascot High Street, which is 4.6km from the SPA, as the Dartford warbler flies, and that has been stopped, yet it is surrounded by alternative open space. It is only a couple of minutes from Ascot racecourse, which is open to the public."

Mr Ullathorne, one of the founders of the Thames Valley New Homes coalition, which has been formed to represent local builders hit by the ban, said he thought English Nature's position was "untenable" and that interim arrangements had to be made to allow housebuilding to continue, while the delivery plan was brought in - which might take two years.

The coalition's spokesman, Rory Scanlan, said: "It is not an exaggeration to say the freeze is having a devastating effect on their businesses. The turnover of one is down by 40 per cent and he has had to let 40 per cent of his staff go. No one for a moment objects to having controls on building near environmentally sensitive sites, but the issue is English Nature's interpretation of the regulations, and the application of the 5km rule."