Campaigners say garden-grabbing can destroy the quality of suburbs
Councils in England are to get greater powers to stop developers building homes on gardens, the government says.
Gardens, in the brownfield planning category used for ex-factory land, are to be reclassified to try to stop a practice known as "garden-grabbing".
Communities minister Greg Clark said it was "ridiculous" that vital green space was being lost.
In January, the Labour government promised to draw up plans to deal with garden-grabbing "hotspots".
There is increasing concern among campaigners about homes being built on land attached to existing urban or suburban houses, which increases population density. Campaigners say this damages the character of an area.
Taking gardens out of the brownfield category would "transform" councils' ability to reject unwanted development where local people object, Mr Clark said.
"For years the wishes of local people have been ignored as the character of neighbourhoods and gardens has been destroyed, robbing communities of vital green space," he said.
"It is ridiculous that gardens have until now been classified in the same group as derelict factories and disused railway sidings, forcing councils and communities to sit by and watch their neighbourhoods get swallowed up in a concrete jungle."
SOME GARDEN-GRABBING HOTSPOTS
Weymouth and Portland (54%)
Source: Proportion of new dwellings built on previously residential land between 2005 and 2008 in certain towns (DCLG)
Recent government figures suggest the proportion of houses built on previously residential land, such as gardens, increased from one in 10 in 1997 to one in four in 2008.
Former deputy prime minister John Prescott, who was in charge of housing policy for many years under the Blair government, said there may have been "one or two examples" where residential gardens should not have been built on.
But he told BBC Radio 4's Today the reality was that the UK "desperately needed" new houses and Labour's policy of increasing housing density in city centres had allowed more families to get access to housing, particularly in expensive areas such as the south of England.
"You have to look at how many homes we need and where they will be built. When we came in, something like 55% of the houses were being built on brownfield sites. We increased that to 75% because we desperately need to use a lot of the empty space, particularly in the cities, for affordable homes.
"We wanted people back in the cities and not undermining the suburban areas and, at the same time, reducing the amount of greenfield sites."
The new government's policy amounted to protecting the interests of millionaires rather than the needs of ordinary families, he said.
"It is about the few at the expense of the many. This is what change really means."
Speaking on the same programme, Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith said part of the problem was that gardens were much cheaper and more convenient to develop than industrial wasteland.
"We want to protect gardens so that instead of being at the top of the list in terms of targets of developers they are at the bottom.
"This is a real concern for communities."
While he accepted there was a real housing shortage, he said the focus should be on developing the brownfield sites available and bringing the 600,000 currently empty houses back into occupation.
"We are not saying it is going to be impossible to develop greenfield sites. What we are actually doing is handing that decision-making power back to local authorities."
Local communities should be able to hold referendums to vote on big developments such as housing projects or supermarkets.
"The current system is totally anti-democratic. You have local authorities trying to make decisions on local development issues being overruled, almost on a routine basis, by central government.
"Our job is to try and ensure that those places that should be developed are developed."
In January, the Department for Communities and Local Government said the definition of brownfield land had not changed since the 1980s, but that developers' targets had altered.
We would like planning measures to go further than protecting existing gardens, to guarantee high-quality green space and gardening opportunities in all new building developments
Dr Simon Thornton Wood, director of science and learning at the Royal Horticultural Society, said gardens had medical as well as environmental benefits.
"Gardens, like parks, are the green lungs of cities, improving air quality, controlling air temperature and flood risk, and providing a haven for wildlife.
"Beyond these very practical benefits of gardens we know that gardening is great for physical and mental health.
"That's why we would like planning measures to go further than protecting existing gardens, to guarantee high-quality green space and gardening opportunities in all new building developments, wherever they are."
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