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The Great Garden Grab

Jack Shamash

1st February, 2007

You may see your garden as a spare room or a place to be in touch with nature, but changes to planning rules mean it is likely to attract higher council tax if it hasn’t already been snapped up by a developer. Jack Shamash reports

You probably haven’t noticed, but there’s a bulldozer standing at the ready at your garden gate, poised to take everything you treasure away from you. For centuries, domestic gardens have been a valued part of the family landscape. A bit of green space for those lucky enough to own them and an irreplaceable habitat for animals, birds and insects in the urban environment. To buy a house with a garden is also, for many, an investment in something tangible and solid: land.

However, Britain’s gardens are on the endangered list, due to a mixture of greed and the cowardice of a Government unwilling to stand up against the homebuilding lobby of developers, large builders, banks and estate agents. Over the past decade the demand for land has increased so dramatically that, quietly and without much fanfare, every tiny plot of land has been reclassified as a development opportunity. Adding insult to injury, the Government has allowed the protection once offered by planning laws to be eroded to such a degree that it is becoming almost impossible for private homeowners to prevent developers from taking their land away from them.

The principle is not new: large gardens have long been targets. In the past, stately homes and prestigious villas were completely pulled down so the plot could be divided into smaller parcels and used to build a large number of flats or small houses. Alternatively, a process known to planners as ‘infilling’ was used, where the original buildings were left standing, but new homes were built on the surrounding gardens. Now, because of new Government rules, no garden – no matter how small – can be considered safe from developers.

For those who can get hold of small parcels of land, there are huge profits to be made. According to the Halifax price index, house prices in Greater London, for example, have nearly tripled in the past 16 years; they increased by more than 80 per cent in the past six years alone. And this pattern, with regional fluctuations, has been roughly followed across the country.

But the potential profits from squeezing large buildings into small locations are even greater than these figures suggest. This is because it is the price of land, rather than the cost of the actual bricks and mortar, that has been rising so sharply.

It is relatively easy to see how much of the value of a property is due to the land cost and how much to the cost of building. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors runs a building cost information service, which gives estimates for the actual building costs of various kinds of building of various sizes in different locations. It shows that the cost of building has roughly doubled within the past 16 years, which alone doesn’t explain house price inflation.

To take the example of a small two bedroom flat in north London; around 16 years ago the value would have been in the region of £100,000. The rebuilding cost would have been in the region of £45,000 and the land cost £55,000. Today, the same flat would be worth around £300,000. Of this, the rebuilding cost would be £90,000 while the land value would be £210,000. In other words, since 1991 the value of prime building land has almost quadrupled.

The difference in price between the building cost and the sales cost is of critical importance to developers. In this case, it means that for every extra flat they can squeeze onto a plot of land, they stand to make an extra £210,000 in profits.

For example, take a developer who buys a plot of land for £1 million. He may have to pay around an extra £300,000 on legal and architect’s fees and interest. In other words, his outgoings come to around £1.3 million. If he can use the site to build 10 two-bedroom flats, with a £210,000 profit on each, he will make a total profit of £800,000; £2.1 million less £1.3. If he can use the site to build 20 two-bedroom flats, he will make £4.2 million minus £1.3 million – a profit of £2.9 million. In other words, if developers can cram flats onto a site, they will make a packet.

These profits only pertain if the blocks of flats are situated in urban or suburban areas where people want to live and are already well-served by local services, public transport, shops and suchlike. But available development land in these areas is scarce. That is, it was scarce until developers were given the green light to view houses with large gardens as sites for redevelopment.

Since 1985, gardens have been regarded as developed or ‘brownfield’ land, rather than green space. Originally, this designation was simply a statistical device to see how much of Britain’s land had been built on; home and garden were viewed as a single entity. Not any more.

In the document Planning Policy Guidance 3, which was issued in 2000, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott decided that developed, or ‘brownfield’ land, should be used to create as many new  homes as possible – at a stroke, making gardens prime real estate. He set a target for 60 per cent of new housing to be built on brownfield land. Moreover, the guidance introduced new density targets of 30 to 50 dwellings per hectare. In many areas, the only way to achieve these densities would be to build on gardens.

This government planning guidance encourages developers to buy up homes with large gardens, demolish them and either build blocks of flats or use the gardens for infilling. It is very difficult for  councils or local groups to oppose such development, because it falls within government guidelines.

The developers can point out that they are using brownfield land (ie gardens) and are building within the recommended density. This will give them grounds for appeal, if the council rejects the plan. And if, as often happens, the developers win their appeal, the council can be faced with a ruinous legal bill. With the cards stacked against them, many councils will approve almost any amount of infilling or replacement building.

In many areas, the effect of this has been to usher in a new building boom, as houses with large gardens are bulldozed to the ground and replaced by high-density blocks of flats.

Greg Clark, Tory MP for Tunbridge Wells, introduced a Private Member’s Bill in the last session of Parliament to protect gardens from developments that are ‘out of character with the area’. Although the bill was unsuccessful, Mr Clark claims to have had support from beleagured residents across the country.

Greg Clark explained that in his area, houses with large gardens were being bought up and demolished. As one fell, this occasioned a domino effect. Neighbours then felt pressured to sell to developers because they were in danger of being trapped in ‘canyons’, left between the blocks of flats.

‘We have a fine collection of Victorian property,’ said Clark. ‘One by one, each of the houses and their gardens are being filled with blocks of flats.’

Research undertaken by Clark in support of his Bill revealed the extent of the problem. This showed that in six local authority areas – Bradford, Chelmsford, Guilford, Nottingham, Oxford and Tunbridge Wells – 72 per cent of the ‘brownfield development’ is actually occurring on domestic gardens. Only 28 per cent of the brownfield development involved what many of us may imagine it describes, such as turning disused factories or warehouses into housing.

Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Caroline Spelman, Conservative MP for Meriden, is set to introduce a second Private Member’s Bill on this issue in February. This proposes to allow local authorities to set their own housing density targets and give them powers to ‘protect gardens and urban green space’.

She explained that this was a serious problem: ‘In my area we’ve seen the demolition of four bungalows being replaced by 42 houses and flats. The council has been powerless to oppose because when the application is appealed to the Secretary of State, permission is granted anyway and the local authority is overruled.’

It is not the planning guidance alone that has allowed developers to call the shots; a whole series of other measures have exacerbated the situation.

Under Government guidance issued in 2001, PPG13, local authorities have been told not to worry if there is relatively little car parking available for the residents of any new development. The guidance suggests ‘reducing the amount of parking in new development is essential’. The move is shrouded in greenwash, being said to encourage communities where there is less reliance on cars. But, of course, it does nothing of the kind. Residents have the same number of cars as they did in the past. The rule simply means that councils cannot reject schemes on the basis that there is nowhere for residents to park.

In addition, the forthcoming council tax re-evaluation is likely to increase taxes on houses with gardens. The Valuation Office Agency has special codes for homes with gardens, patios and large  plots, which will be used to assess the council tax. When the re-evaluation is finally put into effect – it was put on hold before the last election – it is likely that homes with gardens will attract far higher levels of council tax. This could, of course, force many residents to sell up and move on.

Government guidelines on ‘social and affordable housing’ has served to stimulate the trend for developing small plots. Under Government guidelines, local authorities can insist that a certain percentage of any development is set aside for ‘intermediate’ or ‘social’ housing. These quotas only apply to development of more than 15 homes. In other words, developers have an incentive to create small developments – such as knocking down houses with big gardens and replacing them with flats – as this imposes no commitment to create affordable homes, which boosts the profits to be had.

In a more sinister and draconian move, the Government has created a situation where it is even possible that householders could be forced to give up their gardens against their will. Under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, local authorities and planning boards will be able to acquire land for development ‘if they think that it will facilitate the carrying out of development, redevelopment or improvement on or in relation to the land, on condition that such acquisition will be of economic, social or environmental benefit to the area.’ In plain English, if a local authority gives its support, a planner could compulsorily purchase any garden, although this has yet to happen.

And the prospects look worse for the future. Academics at the Cambridge University Centre for Urban Studies, who are working on Government-sponsored research, believe that gardens could be the key to solving Britain’s housing problems. They propose that back gardens over 30 metres – which is the average size for many Georgian terraces and modern semis – could be sold for new housing, and that this might have to be done ‘in the teeth of intense local opposition’.

The latest draft Government policy (Planning Policy Statement 3–Housing), which was issued last year, has recommended developments of even higher densities than those laid out in 2000. It  suggests that city centres – including all inner London boroughs – should have 70 dwellings per hectare. Since the slums of the Victorian era were demolished, suburbs have generally had density levels of between 33 and 55 dwellings per hectare.

These recommendations, of course, make it more likely that gardens will be used for development, as the profits for developers increase with increased density levels.

In November last year, local authorities gave their views on the planning guidance. One of their major fears was that ‘the approach to residential back gardens could be interpreted as advocating their development for housing’.

The attempt to ‘grab gardens’ is proving highly controversial. It is not only Conservative MPs such as Clark and Spelman who are campaigning to bring this issue out into the open; Labour MPs are also expressing concern. Chris Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, said that his party is ‘in a state of denial’ about what is happening. He said that even in his area, which has large areas of genuine brownfield land where factories have been simply closed down and abandoned, developers prefer to build on large gardens in relatively affluent suburbs. In addition, developers were hiring helicopters to identify suitable garden sites.

As always in this country, anyone trying to prevent property development is criticised for being a selfish, middle-class NIMBY, trying to prevent working people from getting on the property ladder. However, there are many genuine reasons for trying to prevent these developments. Ecologically speaking, gardens create a microclimate, making cities warmer in winter and cooler in summer. By absorbing large quantities of rainwater, they prevent flash floods. And they are environmentally important for biodiversity.

A recent report by the Environment Committee of the London Assembly calculated that a fifth of London’s land is made up of private gardens and that this contains a huge variety of plants, insects and birds, many of which could not survive in the large public parks. Gardens also play a vital role in the recycling of green waste, through actvities such as composting, and reduced water usage through the use of water butts.

Many pressure groups are already aware of the danger. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is firmly against the destruction of back gardens, as is Garden Organic (formerly the Henry Doubleday Research Association), which describes gardens as ‘ecosystems we cannot afford to lose’.

However, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), which advises the Government on building policy, says that there is no real problem. They suggest that building on gardens is perfectly acceptable as long as the standard of architecture is high.

CABE also says that the situation is not really weighted in favour of developers. Matt Bell, CABE’s director of campaigns, points out that the vast majority of planning applications are rejected.  However, this obscures the reality. Generally, developers will apply for a far higher level of development than they will realistically achieve or want. An initial application may be for 18 flats, a subsequent one for 16 and a third for 14. This process, of submitting a large number of revised plans – and by threatening potentially expensive appeals if the decision is not in their favour – is used to wear down opposition from local people and from planning officers. And if – as the recently released Barker Review of Land Use Planning recommends – the process of planning applications is speeded up, there will be even less opportunity for communities to question how their neighbourhoods are changing.

The Government justifies the easing of planning regulations by saying that there is a requirement for millions of new homes. Using trend surveys, it was calculated in 1991 that by 2016, the UK would require another 4.4 million households to accommodate the population. Today these largely industry-supplied figures are still being used to support the idea that we need a major housebuilding initiative.

However, these figures ignore the fact that the British population is relatively static. What is happening is simply that more people are living as single-person households. The demand for homes could largely be resolved by existing houses being split into flats or by homeowners renting out rooms.

In addition, the Government has failed to look at alternative sources of new homes. For example, the area around London is ringed by seaside towns. However – with the notable exceptions of such places as Brighton and Southend – these are so poorly served by the train network that they are unsuitable for most commuters. Yet, with proper investment in high-speed train links, towns such as Hastings, Bognor, Worthing, Folkestone, Deal and Margate could become important commuter centres.

Instead, the Government has only two solutions to meet housing demand. It consistently advocates that developers should whittle away at green belt land, which is one of the country’s great assets. And it wants councils to give permission for more building on domestic gardens, which can only erode the environment.

Anyone who doubts the effect that planning policy can have, should have a look at the Buchanan Report of 1963, issued by the Ministry of Transport, which examined the problem of traffic in towns.

This hugely influential report, written by a group of leading academics with strings of initials after their names, suggested that Britain’s town centres should be largely pulled down and that urban freeways should be driven through them. One of their most appalling suggestions – fortunately never realised – was that almost the whole of Bloomsbury, with its historic Georgian squares and leafy streets, should be replaced with high-rise flats and underground parking.

The Buchanan report, however wellmeaning it might have been, allowed developers to rip the heart out of cities such as Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. The Buchanan report concluded: ‘Recreating the urban environment in a vigorous and lively way could do more than anything to make Britain the most exciting country in the world, with incalculable results for our welfare and prosperity.’ Instead, it created an urban desert, from which many cities have never really recovered.

The Government and its paid academics are now exhibiting the same kind of enthusiasm about cramming homes into gardens. Once again, they are predicting that development will bring about an urban renaissance. Unfortunately, the changes that they envisage could be just as ghastly as those schemes of the Sixties, and the results could be just as permanent.

Jack Shamash is a freelance journalist

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2007

 

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