Do the environmental benefits of gardens outweigh the need for affordable houses?

| 19th October 2010
Raleigh's Cross Inn, Exmoor, under construction
The need for more affordable housing is often cited as a reason for building on often-environmentally important garden plots. But does such a policy result in more cheap homes? Apparently not, argues Simon Leadbeater

Back in the summer on Radio 4’s Today programme John Prescott sparred with the MP for Richmond and owner of The Ecologist, Zac Goldsmith, following the decision by Greg Clark MP, the Minister for Decentralisation, to give local authorities new powers to stop so called ‘garden grabbing.’  Lord Prescott lambasted ‘the few people who may object to the house in their street that’s going to be used for social housing’ and talked ‘about families who haven’t got a ruddy home.’

Jim Naughtie umpired the exchange and introduced Goldsmith by remarking on the ‘desperate need for social housing, of which gardens play a part.’  So the argument reasonably enough seems to be that the environmental benefits of gardens may be worth sacrificing because land is needed for affordable homes. Gardens or affordable homes – this is the choice, and Greg Clark re-ignited the debate by appearing to side with gardens.

How gardens became vulnerable

The background to garden developments is enshrined in legalistic planning language, but essentially derives from the former Government’s publication of Planning Policy Guidance 3: Housing in 2000, which was replaced in 2006 by Planning Policy Statement 3: Housing, commonly known as PPS3. Crucially, as far as building on gardens is concerned, in Annex B of PPS3 the definition of previously developed land includes land ‘within the curtilage of developed land.’  If land lies ‘within the curtilage of developed land, it can be regarded as brownfield...’ and as such it could be built on.

Over the last decade a quarter of new homes were built on previously residential land – including gardens.  In some areas, such as the Chilterns, over 70 per cent of new homes have been built on residential land. What does this mean for the nation’s gardens?  There is no central database recording garden developments; local authorities do not always respond to surveys and they record information differently and sometimes not at all. 

However, embedded in a government-commissioned study by Kingston University are some figures concerning planning permissions granted ‘within the curtilage of an existing dwelling,’ - or in other words - within a garden. Kingston approached all of England’s 363 planning authorities of which a third responded indicating in total that nearly 20,000 gardens had been lost to development from 2003 to 2008.  This is probably an underestimate; some of the authorities’ responses were partial or contained no figures at all.  It is probably safe to assume that over 50,000 gardens were lost in this five year period – with perhaps as many as 100,000 from 2000 to 2010.

As attested by many local protests not everyone has welcomed garden developments. Goldsmith campaigned against garden developments, and in 2007 Garden Organic launched its ‘Save our Gardens’ campaign. Kingston University found that public concern was highest in the south east and outer London, following which in early 2010 the Chief Planning Officer was asked to remind local authorities that they are ‘best placed to develop policies and take decisions on the most suitable locations for housing and they can, if appropriate, resist development on existing gardens.’ 

To support local councils some of Annex B was moved into the main body of PPS3, with wording changed to say ‘there is no presumption that previously developed land is necessarily suitable for housing, nor that all of the curtilage should be developed.’ The Chief Planning Officer’s letter may have indicated the Government’s unease or perhaps recognised that garden developments were not a vote winner in some key constituencies. 

The new coalition government lost little time and in June 2010 the Chief Planning Officer again wrote to all planning authorities, this time announcing a fundamental change: ‘private residential gardens are now excluded from the definition of previously developed land.’  Hence the exchange between Prescott and Goldsmith on Today.  What difference this will make remains to be seen, but the compelling question is what social benefit had building on gardens achieved from 2000 until June 2010 when the planning guidelines were changed.

Affordable homes

Where I live, in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, a commuter belt town north of London, in common with many residents I have seen several gardens transformed into executive homes and Edwardian dwellings with attendant c.100 year old trees replaced with mini-housing estates.  But social housing has always been conspicuous by its absence so I asked the local council how many affordable homes had been built on gardens since 2000.  The answer was none at all.

To assess how representative this was I first contacted authorities in the county and ended by approaching more than 55 district authorities in the Home Counties. The response was mixed; some authorities claimed not to have collated this data, others did not have the resources to find out, one or two said that as a FoI request it would cost over £450 to carry out the research. Some, however, provided written observations and others data concerning affordable home constructions.  What was surprising at the time – but obvious with hindsight – is that gardens are not suitable for affordable housing developments. Or, to express it as planning officers have, ‘garden sites are usually small and only accommodate one or two new dwellings and are generally not affordable homes...’; ‘for affordable housing any use of garden land would be very low...’; ‘no affordable housing has been built on back gardens...’ For those authorities that provided data the percentage of affordable homes built on gardens ranged from zero to just over one per cent. 

To say no affordable homes have been built on garden land would not be wholly accurate. In cases where a number of properties are demolished and plots amalgamated to create larger sites then the scale of developments would fall within the thresholds for affordable housing.  In some cases authorities did not differentiate between building on individual gardens and larger scale developments of this type.  Evidence indicates that where affordable houses had been built on gardens it was because of developing larger sites created by demolishing existing dwellings. 

Nearly half of the contacted authorities responded. My research’s findings echoed those of the Kingston study: ‘most garden developments do not attract the requirement to provide affordable housing as part of garden developments and… it was very rare for developers to offer significant levels of affordable housing within small schemes leading in some cases [to]…an actuality of under-provision of affordable housing.’  This is hardly surprising. There was no mechanism for ensuring that small garden sites contributed to affordable housing targets and no compulsion on the part of authorities to measure the number of affordable homes being built on gardens. The outcome was that ‘detached dwellings were the most common.’

The Kingston study did not specifically set out to assess whether garden developments had contributed to affordable housing, but in determining the ‘quantum and type of development’ this was one of its findings.  The review’s remit was limited, only contacting planning authority officials.  It is dismissive of ‘frivolous objections… based on NIMBY principles and not planning policy concerns’ which rather assumes that issues falling outside of the planning legislative paradigm must be illegitimate – not a view shared by the many people who find the planning system tends to support developers rather than objectors.

Why building on gardens matters

Of course there is the argument that building on gardens relieves pressure on the greenbelt.  I am not in favour of revising greenbelt boundaries, but would argue that gardens are in certain respects more valuable than some areas of countryside.  Natural England has documented that the intensification of modern agriculture has ‘resulted in a profound decline in the diversity of wildlife’ and the BBC recently reported that the Farmbird Index of key species has declined by a further 5 per cent.  Gardens offer a vital refuge for many bird and other species.  As Richard Bashford of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has said ‘if more garden spaces are turned into buildings [birds] will decline further.’ 

I have always been uncomfortable arguing that the environmental benefits of gardens should outweigh the need for affordable homes. Consequently my research has focused on whether garden developments have produced a social benefit, namely a meaningful increase in social housing. The answer is an emphatic ‘no’.  So, what has been the main outcome of encouraging householders to sell off their gardens (and in some cases houses too) for development?  In Harpenden, householders who sell their gardens are by many standards already wealthy and the homes springing up from gardens can sell for in the region of £800,000 and more – not terribly affordable. The main social consequence (as distinct from benefit) of garden developments in Harpenden has been to make wealthy residents even wealthier. This may not be wholly representative, but is certainly an under reported feature of the garden grabbing phenomenon. 

The reality is that the choice between gardens and affordable homes is a false dichotomy; from the admittedly limited research carried out, garden developments have not made any appreciable difference to the number of affordable homes. 


Dr Simon Leadbeater is a woodland owner and writer on environmental issues

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