Developer Henry Boot has played down talk of a slowing property market, reporting a sustained clamour from big investors for land.

The Sheffield group, which specialises in retail parks, offices and industrial warehouses, said the strength of interest meant it could look forward to further progress in 2005 after growing underlying profits by 15 per cent to £15.9 million last year.

But it continued to be frustrated by a planning system which cut the amount of land available to developers and led to delays in property sales.

Henry Boot, which employs around 450 staff across four divisions - property development, land management, construction and its Banner Plant hire business - was behind the 18-acre site Meir Park site in Stoke-on-Trent.

But managing director Jamie Boot admitted the group had had little success in developing any Birmingham projects of late.

"We are active throughout the rest of the UK but are finding Birmingham a particularly difficult market," he said.

Boot's housebuilding operations were sold two years ago to reduce its exposure to risk and the property cycle, which meant bottom-line profits halved over the past year after it banked a £16.2 million oneoff gain in 2003.

Turnover from continuing operations fell from £90 million to £84.2 million as the group suffered from some delays after winning new work, but it said this ensured it began this year with a healthy order book.

Chairman John Reis said: "With investor interest remaining strong, particularly whilst pension funds seek to diversify their asset allocations, our immediate prospects remain firm and we look forward to further achievements in the year ahead."

The group's biggest sales during 2004 were property at retail parks in Blackburn and Frome, Somerset.

Investor relief at the positive outlook from Henry Boot was visible in its share price, which rose nearly three per cent. The response also reflected joy at a 10.8 per cent increase in the annual dividend to 16.4p.

The group said its land management business had an encouraging year and began 2005 with an interest in 6,000 acres.

Mr Reis said: "Further land holdings awarded planning consent during the course of the year, together with the sound overall state of the activity, enable us to continue to look to the future with confidence."

In its plant hire division, the company enjoyed a second half revival in sales as customers hired more tools, mobile toilets, portable accommodation and air compressors.