The birds that blocked 20,000 new homes
Huge building development across 300 square miles of south-east England
is frozen to protect three rare species: the Dartford warbler (Sylvia
undata), the nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus) and the woodlark (Lullula
By Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor
Published: 02 May 2006
All plans for new housebuilding have been frozen over a massive area of
the Home Counties to protect three species of rare birds in the most
remarkable clash yet between environment and development in Britain.
Concerns about the welfare of the nightjar, the woodlark and the
Dartford warbler have halted schemes for building thousands of homes
over an expanse of nearly 300 square miles, stretching from the M25,
west of London, almost to Reading. The unprecedented moratorium has
come about because the hitherto-irresistible force of the housing boom
in the South-east has run into the immovable object of European Union
wildlife protection law, which safeguards the three bird species in a
Acting under advice from the government's wildlife agency, English
Nature, 11 local authorities in Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire have
frozen all new housing planning applications since October last year
inside a vast cordon around the birds' breeding habitats, patches of
heather-covered lowland heath dotted across the area. In doing so they
have put future plans for up to 20,000 houses on indefinite hold and
caused anguish among local building firms, some of which say they have
had to sack staff. The Home Builders' Federation wants the Government
to step in as a matter of urgency.
Yet the situation can be resolved, says English Nature, if the local
councils adopt a radical plan and provide new public open space to
accompany all new development, which would absorb the extra pressure
from visitors that might otherwise put the birds' nesting success at
The councils are at present considering the plan, while an audit is
carried out of all the land in the area that might be available to
provide new open space.
In the meantime, the Government is seriously alarmed at the head-on
collision between the very different imperatives of housing provision
and nature protection. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural
Affairs (Defra) strongly supports English Nature's position; but John
Prescott's Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM), which looks
after housing, is commissioning new research which might see the
agency's position undermined.
In the little publicity previously afforded to the issue, the ban has
been presented as ridiculous: all those houses held up for a few little
birds. But in truth it is serious and has been waiting to happen, as
the colossal development of England's overcrowded South-east - into
which the Government wants to put another 580,000 houses over the next
20 years - rolls on unchecked. Sooner or later the seemingly
unstoppable juggernaut was bound to hit a barrier of some sort. Now it
At issue is not just the fate of the birds, but the protection of the
lowland heath on which nightjars, woodlarks and Dartford warblers make
their nests, one of England's most attractive and wildlife-rich but
Recent research has convinced English Nature that public access to
heaths - especially people walking dogs - is a much greater threat to
the breeding success of all three species that had previously been
realised. With the group of heathlands nearest to London, the agency is
now formally objecting to any further residential development within
In doing so, it insists it is simply carrying out its obligations to
implement EU law.
There are 13 major stretches of lowland heath due west of London, such
as Chobham Common in Surrey. Individually, they are already Sites of
Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) under British legislation, because
of the richness of their wildlife. But they have been further
designated, collectively, as the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection
Area (SPA) under the EU's 1979 birds directive, expressly to safeguard
the nightjars, woodlarks and Dartford warblers that nest on them.
The directive, transposed into English law as the Habitats Regulations
1994, is extremely tough, and forbids anything likely to have a
"significant effect" on the species for which an area was selected. In
the past, English Nature concentrated its protection efforts on the
management of the heaths themselves, but several studies over the past
four years have convinced staff that success in bird breeding is
correlated with visitor pressure - the more visitors, the fewer
successful nests. Both nightjar and woodlark nest on the ground, while
the Dartford warbler nests low down in gorse bushes, and all three are
likely to be flushed from the nest by visitors' dogs, leaving eggs and
chicks at the mercy of predators. Although the agency has long insisted
on a 400-metre building exclusion zone around protected heathlands, it
now believes that people who use the heaths come from farther away than
was generally appreciated and a much wider residential building
exclusion zone is now necessary.
Since October last year the agency has formally objected to any housing
application within five kilometres of the SPA. These 5km zones link
together to form an oval area 30 miles across at its widest point and
15 miles deep, taking in such towns as Guildford, Woking, Camberley,
Bracknell and Ascot - the very heartland of booming south-east England,
"Britain's California" - where demand for new housing development is
The 11 local councils concerned, following legal advice, are now
refusing every housing application for the area. It is impossible to
give a precise figure for new houses put on hold, but local builders
estimate that plans for more than 3,000 new homes have already been
stalled. But if the issue is not resolved, that total is certain to
rise steeply. The new housing allocation for the 11 councils is 40,000,
of which about 35,000 fall inside the affected area - that is, within
five kilometres of one of the heaths. Some of these have been built so
a figure of 20,000 new homes likely to be held up is probably nearer
the true picture.
The scheme that English Nature is putting forward to solve the problem,
labelled the Thames Basin Heaths Delivery Plan, is an entirely new
approach to spatial planning, because it would mean that individual
housing applications would not necessarily have to be assessed
individually for their impact on the SPA.
Instead, land "in mitigation" - alternative open space to soak up added
public pressure expected from the new homes - could be provided
strategically for the whole area.
The main objection from housebuilders to English Nature's position is
that the 5km exclusion zone around the SPA is too wide.
However, the agency's chief executive, Dr Andy Brown, said: "All the
evidence we can put together suggests that anything within that sort of
radius, in terms of new development, is going to have some effect on
the bird populations of the sites.
"But we know how to offset that effect - by creating additional green
space. So it is possible to have housing in the area if developers and
local authorities can work together with the delivery plan."
Heathland, the home of the three bird species which have halted a
building boom, is the last truly wild part of the countryside of
The nightjars, woodlarks and Dartford warblers of the Thames Basin
Heaths are characteristic creatures of a special place. While the
intimate pattern of small woods and fields that make up most of the
South is charming, it is undeniably domesticated.
Lowland heath is quite different. These tracts of dark heather,
interspersed with gorse and silver birch, feel untamed, like an
entirely different landscape, a different country almost. Bagshot
Heath, on the borders of Surrey and Berkshire, feels like it could be
in Russia. They are wonderful places to walk.
And, because they are untouched by agriculture, the heaths of the South
are rich in wildlife. Chobham Common, near the junction of the M25 and
M3 motorways, has recorded 350 species of wild flower, 100 species of
bird and 23 species of mammal.
But these heathlands are mere mini-remnants of the huge stretches that
once covered much of southern England. Now more than three-quarters of
them are gone, and only three major chunks remain: the Dorset Heaths,
the Wealden Greensand Heaths in Sussex, and the Thames Basin Heaths
west of London.
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