Keep our front gardens green!

| 30th June 2015
A paved front garden in Chingford, outer London - one of 7 million around the country. Photo: William Warby via Flickr (CC BY).
A paved front garden in Chingford, outer London - one of 7 million around the country. Photo: William Warby via Flickr (CC BY).
It's time to halt the loss of the nation's front gardens to dreary paving, writes Jenny Jones. Green gardens protect against floods, provide homes for wildlife, keep cities cool in summer, and help us all feel happier. Now, with 7 million gardens already paved over, we must protect those that remain.
We need to tip the balance of planning rules in favour of front gardens dominated by open flower beds, lawns, green open spaces and permeable pathways. Paving should be kept to a bare minimum.

When you next get the chance, see how many suburban front gardens are concreted or paved over - leaving rainfall nowhere to run off except the street.

See how many contain no greenery at all - reducing the habitat available to urban wildife, depriving us of the green shade of plants, and raising temperatures.

At a time when we need our urban front gardens more than ever to combat the effects of heavy rain, heatwaves and air pollution with plants that can filter out noxious vehicle fumes, they are disappearing at a rate never seen before as people turn their front gardens into off-street car parks.

Instead of lawns, hedges and plants, our front gardens are being replaced by a creeping layer of dreary grey paving ... concrete, bricks, gravel and tarmac. About one third of the UK's 21 million front gardens have been turned into hard paved parking spaces in the past two decades. That's the equivalent of 42 Hyde Parks, or 14,200 hectares of what was green, permeable space.

Factors driving this process are the desire to avoid 'residents parking' charges, too many cars for the amount of on-street parking, the wish to reduce garden maintenance, and the growth of renting and buy to let sector. And if the trend continues, the traditional lawn could become a thing of the past, according to one insurance company. This is not only bad news for our health and wellbeing, but also for our wildlife.

Three million front gardens in the UK are now paved over. Three times more than ten years ago. This alarming trend was highlighted by The Royal Horticultural Society [RHS] in their Why we all need Greening Grey Britain report published earlier this month.

With extensive paving, areas can quickly become grey and dreary for everyone including local residents with no say, such as renters or those living in homes without gardens. But it's also bad for our mental health, which benefits from green surroundings.

Accelerating loss of wildlife and habitat

But it's not just our health and wellbeing that suffers, but our wildlife. With 60% of UK wildlife species and natural habitats in decline losing an additional three million front gardens to concrete or tarmac means there are fewer places for birds to nest, insects to feed and bees to forage.

And to accommodate dropped kerbs for off-street car parking, there is less space for street trees and grass verges. Hard surfaces absorb heat in the day and release it at night. The more paving, the hotter it is and more difficult it is to sleep.

Known as the 'urban heat island effect' during hot summer nights, central London can already be 10°C warmer than the surrounding green belt, and during heatwaves this has serious health implications, particularly among the vulnerable.

Impermeable paving also stops rain from soaking into the ground, causing the soil to shrink and if areas are predominantly clay, this can mean walls cracking from subsidence.

The RHS report is not calling for a change in planning laws, but outlines practical solutions to help de-pave and plant up the space. In my view, given the extent, these voluntary actions are a key part of the solution, but they are simply not enough.

Planning laws are inadequate

One paved over front garden might seem to be of little consequence, but the cumulative impact of every other, or a rows, can mean in a storm thousands of litres of surface water runs off into drains that can't cope. The excess water can flood not only their properties, but their neighbours.

Hard surfaces also collect vehicle pollutants such as oil, petrol and brake dust and in flash floods these toxins can end up polluting rivers.

After the 2007 floods, the Government in 2008 rightly changed planning laws to incorporate the use of permeable materials, or to direct run off to porous areas or soak-ways on any sizes of front garden. Over five square metres, planning permission is required for laying down traditional hard surfaced paving.

However, when half of London's front gardens have disappeared under paving or concrete, a 36% increase over the last ten years, planning laws are clearly inadequate.

The lack of local enforcement of planning rules appears to be a big issue. This is not surprising, given limited council capacities and the major cuts to Environment Agency staff who advised councils and developers.

Habitat and tackling urban heat island effect should take priority

We need to tip the balance of planning rules in favour of front gardens dominated by open flower beds, lawns, green open spaces and permeable pathways. Paving should be kept to a bare minimum.

What we have at the moment are planning rules [General Permitted Development, Class F predominantly oriented to tackling surface water flooding. By giving equal weight to protecting or creating wildlife habitats, reducing urban heat island effect and reducing air pollution (through vegetation trapping vehicle fumes), we would be putting the environment first and the car last, not the other way around.

The reasons for cutting our car dependence, ownership and avoidable car journeys are overwhelming, particularly in dense urban areas and where local shops and services are easily accessible by good transport links, or by walking or cycling.

But the reality is that there are seven million front gardens that are already off-street car parks, often paved over with little or no greenery. This is an enormous planning and policy failure.

Need for clear guidance and design ideas

What homeowners and decision makers need is clear, practical information on public body websites that can guide them towards informed decisions and easy, attractive design ideas that benefit the environment and the homeowner, whatever the size of their front garden.

What they get when searching for ideas on many council website are the rules around front garden planning permission. To most people this is planning jargon, incomprehensible and leaves them with more question than answers.

The Mayor of London has strategic responsibilities on climate adaptation and mitigation together. With other public bodies and the help of organisations like the RHS, the Mayor should examine how practical design solutions that maximise greenery and reduce the paving over and the impacts of off-street car parking are best communicated.

Last week at Mayor's Question Time, Boris Johnson said it was a "sad phenomenon" that so many front gardens are being "concreted over". When I asked him to back my call for a comprehensive review of the planning rules relating to front gardens he said he was "receptive" to further discussions. I also raised this at the House of Lords and hope to turn those discussions into Government action.

I think there is a really strong case and appetite for change, but it has not yet been properly recognised. I hope you will join me in supporting this call.



Jenny Jones, aka Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, is a London Assembly member, green campaigner, long term Green Party member, and member of the House of Lords.

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