Homes are springing up in back gardens and yards as the property boom continues. MPs are fighting for a bill to curtail the practice, but does the squeeze on land mean gardens are endangered?
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
So there you are living in leafy suburbia, children playing in lovingly tended gardens and along comes a property developer.
Sadly, the only trees he's interested in are the ones that go to make banknotes. And he has a plan for that house for sale next door.
Housing is a burning issue. Perhaps the burning issue that the next prime minister will face.
An increasingly solitary population, immigration, wealthy second home-owners and the general mania for house-buying are putting immense pressure on some areas of the country.
One of the results is "garden grabbing". Developers buy a house with a generous garden, apply for planning permission to demolish the house and build either flats, or even a mini-estate in its place.
The charity Garden Organic is leading the fight against the phenomenon. It says an area the equivalent of 2,755 Wembley pitches will be lost to new housing in Britain over the next decade.
This is happening because the law allows gardens to be classified as "brownfield" sites, in the same category as former industrial and commercial property. Councils have targets to meet for new houses and for brownfield building - thus gardens are being lost, the campaigners say.
The effect is a rash of flats and new houses replacing gardens in high-price areas.
There goes the neighbourhood
John Owen, a former local government officer from West Bromwich, is watching his leafy neighbourhood being transformed. After 40 years in the same house, he is at breaking point.
On one side, developers are building 13 three-storey terrace houses in what had been the gardens of seven houses. On the other side, five houses have given way to a development of 44 flats. It is too much for the Owens.
The view can get rather grim
"We are moving house as a consequence. It wipes out the character of a neighbourhood. We have lived here 40 years. In the whole area trees have been chopped down and buildings developed. The whole area is sliding downhill."
And for Mr Owen it's not about preserving his neighbourhood for the haves with their big gardens, and keeping out the have-nots keen to jump on the property ladder. A tree-filled area helps everyone, even those living in homes without gardens.
"Even in a single-storey house you can see trees on your skyline. And there is the quietness."
For the property developers, the motivations are obvious. Without the need for new roads or services, profit margins might be higher. And a dense development in an established suburb can be a safer bet than a genuine brownfield site.
Put bluntly, given the choice of moving to a purpose-built flat on the site of an old heavy metals factory, many buyers find they hanker for a berth in Acacia Avenue.
Now the Land Use Bill plans to stamp out garden grabbing by allowing local councils to avoid designating gardens as brownfield. The private members' bill is due to have its second reading on Friday.
new dwellings in 2005
18% on residential land
No figures on garden loss
Gardens often designated as brownfield
"It is an anomaly most people don't know about and are shocked when they discover it. Most people think gardens are quite green, but they are treated the same as railway sidings and derelict gasworks," says Tory MP Greg Clark, who masterminded the bill with Labour's Chris Mullin.
"Greenery is incredibly important in towns for cleaning the air. Family homes are being knocked down, but the biggest shortage is of family homes."
And the notion that this wave of garden grabbing is providing affordable housing for first-time buyers is false, the Tunbridge Wells MP says.
"The threshold [for social housing provision] is usually 15 units. It's amazing the number of developments that come in at 14."
Green and pleasant land
Apart from the loss of green spaces, trees and barriers to traffic noise, current occupants are often left facing a brick wall through their kitchen window. In particularly expensive areas like London, new buildings perch uncomfortably in former gardens, looking rather like a game of residential hide-and-seek.
But the Department for Communities and Local Government argues that gardens can already be protected by local authorities, and designated as non-brownfield, and that the bill is unnecessary.
Forests of scaffolding are replacing mature trees
It says 18% of all new dwellings are on residential land, up from 11% in 1997. But that includes a house being turned into flats, or a demolish-and-rebuild project that occupies the same amount of space. It keeps no separate statistics on how much garden space has been lost.
"The bill is out of date and impractical. Councils already have the power to protect gardens and new planning rules that came into force in April have strengthened those powers further," a spokesman says.
But for the opponents of garden grabbing, local authorities are under immense pressure because of targets for building and the drive for high-density housing.
"They are bedevilled with meeting targets. The inclination is to pass things regardless," the disgruntled Mr Owen says.
And the challenge that faces the country on housing is staggering. Prices continue to spiral and last year, 160,234 new dwellings were built in England, a mere 780 more than in 2005. The average house in England and Wales costs £179,935.
There is immense pressure on the government to provide more houses, and some wonder whether greenbelt land will have to be sacrificed in order to meet the need for affordable houses.
Television gardener Diarmuid Gavin said the loss of gardens, while sad, might be viewed as acceptable if it saves vast areas of the countryside from being built on.
"People are getting used to the fact that gardens are getting smaller. It's why a lot of TV shows are patio shows or city gardens. They are gardening or designing them more intensely. People don't have the time - a lot of people want a manageable-sized garden.
"It is not nice for anyone who is interested in gardens but it is the new reality. We haven't got the space anymore. People come first and they need a place to live."
So enjoy the view out your window, while it lasts.
Below is a selection of your comments.
This is not just a city problem, three gardens in our village are being converted to housing at present. The main reason is financial profit and the environment is suffering as a result.
Mike Dennis, Newbridge, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight
Houses with gardens over a certain age are the guardians of a vast majority of our wildlife species, especially since the agricultural policies of the 50s and 60s. I believe unless a lot of land is taken back from farmers, who are getting paid not to grow anything, we will loose part of our culture and history.
George Clarke, Portrush, N Ireland
In Eastleigh, Hampshire, garden grabbing has been taken to new levels - the town's protected allotments are being threatened with development. Local councils are often persuaded by builders offering them "developers' contribution". Eastleigh allotment holders have fought for five years to save their plots from the bulldozer and on 25 June will drag Ruth Kelly, the current Minister for the Communities and Local Government, into the High Court where they will seek a judicial review of her decision to allow development on allotments to proceed. If this fails then all of England's 300,000 allotments will be at risk to developers.
Richard May, Eastleigh, Hampshire
We have one of these estate being built onto our existing estate, community housing will exit via present roadway, pricier homes exit through private drive-way. Yet there is a town full of empty office buildings not used since building them, so why not convert these? Would make great starter apartments, singles don't seem to need a garden.
Sue Chadwick, Slough
"We haven't got the space anymore." Hey? We've only built on 8% of the land in this country. And I'm paying subsidised farmers to sit on the rest of it. And where is the green belt? Do you go on holiday there? No. So let people have big (energy efficient) new houses on new sites. Give the people what they want. If the economy is going to grow then we'll have to build more. You can't have one without the other.
When I was six (some 33 years ago) I met a very old woman in her 80s who lived at the end of the street. She had lived in the area her whole life, and told me how as a child she had fond memories of a time when all the houses were just fields. If I continue to live in my area for long enough, I'll be telling kids of a time long ago when I was a child, and all these flats were just houses with big gardens where children could play. As my neighbourhood is ploughed up for cheap housing I feel increasingly like I don't want to be British any longer if that's what it now means. I want to leave - but where do I, my friends, relatives and family now belong?
Ian Light, London, England
Many more homes have to be built somewhere and a lot more than are currently being built. Dairmud is correct in that if the required new homes are not built of brown field or infill sites then the only place left is previously undeveloped or green field land. You pays your money & takes your choice. Of course environments and areas change over time - the world would be a very boring place if they didn't and if you don't like the change then moving is the obvious solution. I certainly don't have a problem with that and have moved several times for similar reasons.
Andy R, Plymoth UK
Well if this isn't NIABY ism (Not in anyones back yard). We can't have it two or three ways folks. There aren't that many options; Protect gardens and build in the countryside, protect the green belt and use brownfields, or ignore the needs of people who need housing. I don't think anyone has an appetite for high rise anymore do they? People who release garden land or sell their homes for redevelopment are not the bad guys here. Why not attack the buy to let landlords who soak up property, artificially inflating prices and thereby contributing to the property inflation boom? It's the boom in prices that has made it profitable to sell a garden.
Steve Freathy, Cambridge
Today's new housing estates will become tomorrow's overcrowded slums. Rather than a minimum number of dwellings per acre, planning should specify a maximum, ensuring that all new builds have good sized gardens and private space.
Tony, Newport Pagnell
This has become the norm in Maidenhead, the council has given up turning applications down because the developers go to appeal (Prescott's office) and it costs too much for the council to defend. One road in particular has gone from being a beautiful tree lined avenue of large houses, out of my price!, to one consisting of gated blocks of mega expensive flats. The road surface is now like a patchwork quilt but who will pay to have this and others like it re-surfaced? Doubt it will be the developers. Other areas have had tiny houses stuffed in cheek by jowl alongside the motorway with no parking etc.....truly the slums of tomorrow.
Denise Branch, Maidenhead UK
The Planning Departments are ignoring Planning Policy Statement 3, because it is not law - it is merely a guideline, and they only get points for meeting targets. All over Derby we are seeing proposals for demolition of architecturally appropriate family housing, for replacement by flats and high density town houses with little or no green space. Despite massive opposition from the community, the planners seem determined to force the families out of the city, or into small boxes with no room for children and no privacy at all. Developers dont want true brownfield sites, because they cannot acheive the same price for the properties once completed. Be under no illusion that these developments provide affordable housing - quite the opposite. The planners in Derby hace a choice - follow PPS 3 and have a pleasant, well designed city in which families will wish to live - or demolish all the family housing, and have an ugly, cramped town where only those that cannot afford to leave will remain. The Government say that the planners have the powers to stop this -so it is the local councils choice - and they will have to bear the blame for the destruction of their own city.
Dexter Welton, Derby
I grew up in Australia and where my grandparents were living in Brighton, near Melbourne so called units began spreading. They moved in to a unit on land previously occupied by an old house that had been demolished to make way for two units with paved non-gardens. Their unit was recently sold for almost twice what they paid for it roughly 5 years ago. In short therefore units only supply demand and do not remain a cheap housing option and there is also cause for concern over the unnecessary waist of older buildings if they are knocked down and replaced with units.
Ed, Vantaa, Finland
Building houses in Gardens is a terrible idea. I live in Japan where new houses are built centimeters or millimeters apart and there is no sense of space. The feeling of the buildings pressing in on you is terrible. When I lived in London, we had a very small back garden, but it was something at least. A little space. If this trend continues then parts of the bigger cities will end up looking just like the worst parts of Tokyo or Osaka. That would be a disaster for the UK.
Dominic, Osaka, Japan
It all comes down to supply and demand. There is an increasing need to supply more houses and there is decreasing demand for large gardens. We either build out into the countryside and have "urban sprawl" or we can densify, giving people want they want/need. In Swindon for example, the government have requested that 40,000 houses must be built here in the next 20 years. That will mean an extra 96k people (based on 2.4 per house) - a population increase of 48% from 200k to 296k. I'd much rather see gardens in sparsely developed areas disappear before any countryside is built on. Likewise with knocking down terraced houses for replacement with apartments. These are just market forces indicating that developments weren't dense enough in the first place. If somebody wants a large garden then they should pay for it. As the supply of large gardens drops the price will go up. Everybody else can share green space (parks/countryside) which will improve as the higher densities of peop!
le nearby offer increased funds to maintain/improve them and other services such as public transport.