Telegraph article

The Sunday Telegraph property section can claim a bit-part in this week’s announcement that “garden-grabbing” – the practice whereby developers build in the back gardens of existing homes — is to be discouraged. In 2002 we covered the story of a group of Tunbridge wells residents aggrieved at plans to build flats opposite their homes (right). Although not technically garden-grabbing — the site was previously BT offices and a car park — the case galvanised local opinion against high-density residential development in the town and inspired Greg Clark, the town’s MP from 2005 and now minister for planning, to make the issue a personal crusade.

So what does this week’s move mean for homeowners and aspiring homeowners? Anyone who thinks it will mean that the long garden ofthe tired mock-Tudor house next door will be for ever protected from development may be disappointed. Nothing has been banned. What has happened is that the Government has made two small bureaucratic changes which will give councils less incentive to give planning permission for new homes in the gardens of existing properties. First, the definition of brownfield land — or “previously development land” as it is called by officials in the Department for Communities and Local Government — has been changed so that it will no longer include gardens. This is important because councils are set targets for the proportion of new homes that must be built on previously developed land. Nationally, Carved-up gardens, from top: 5 Warren Mews, one of five houses built on the site of a Victorian lodge; Tulip House, Esher – once one house, now two; Heathwest, London – four houses, from £8.95m Labour set this target at 60 per
cent, which it claimed to have exceeded: 80 per cent of new homes in 2008 were built on such land; of these 23 percent were on previously residential land.

Second, the Government abolished targets for minimum housing density. Labour had demanded that councils build new homes at densities of at least 30 housing units per hectare (12 per acre), and were encouraged to build at higher densities still. The policy has been widely criticised for leading to the construction of large numbers of unwanted flats — and leading to a shortage of family homes.

Taken together, these two changes will make it easier for councils to resist applications from developers to build in back gardens. Some councils have already been fighting garden-grabbing. In one case in Ealing last year, a developer was forced to dispose of a house at a heavy loss after planners rejected plans for a block of flats on the site. In another celebrated case, Kingston upon Thames borough council rejected plans to demolish an inter-war property in Kingston Vale and replace it with five HufHauses.

Yet other councils may take a different line. The Government has not yet abolished councils’ housebuilding targets — although it eatured in the Conservative manifesto. As a result, councils are still bound to allow planning permission for certain numbers of homes. True, they will please some voters if they stop homes being built in back gardens. But they will offend large numbers of other voters if, instead, those homes get built on greenfield sites.

There will continue to be a lot of pressure for gardengrabbing simply because there is an awful lot of money involved. Francis Long, a buying agent with Hanslips in south-west London, has seen at close hand the cosy relationship between developers and some estate agents. “There are some agents who will always advertise a property to developers before they make it available to the general public,” he says. “They do it because they know that if a developer buys they will be able to earn a second fee in 18 months’ time — selling the new homes that are built in the garden.” According to the Government’s figures, Elmbridge in Surrey — the district that covers Weybridge — is the garden-grabbing capital of England.

In 2008, 68 per cent of new homes were built in back gardens. Simon Ashwell of Savills doesn’t see gardengrabbing coming to a complete halt, not least because it is extremely popular among homeowners who stand to make a fortune from gaining planning permission on their gardens.

“We had a case last year where a Victorian lodge house was replaced by five family homes,” he says. “Without the planning permission to demolish and replace, it would have been worth £750,000, but with planning permission it was suddenly worth £2.75 million. In another case a homeowner made £650,000 by selling 0.23 acres of garden. There are people who have been hanging on to houses thinking that their garden would be their pension plan. They are not going to like it if the value of their site drops as a result of the changes.”

Neither are frustrated homeowners likely to be pleased by a reduction in gardengrabbing, which can only increase the shortage of homes and increase inflationary pressures. The Government has not — as yet — loosened planning rules on greenfield land to compensate for the move against garden grabbing.

While back gardens have been reclassified, it appears that the targets for building on brownfield land will remain. It is difficult to see how councils such as Elmbridge or Chiltern (66 per cent of new homes in gardens in 2008) or South Bucks (63 per cent) are going to come close to hitting their targets if they don’t continue to use back gardens. Places such as Weybridge are not exactly swimming with disused factory sites.

The move may intensify the absurd situation where councils persuade thriving businesses to move, so that their sites can be used for new housing in order to meet the brownfield targets. The businesses then relocate to greenfield sites — there being no targets for the proportion of commercial development that must occur on brownfield land.

If would be an irony if residents fought off a plan to build houses in the neighbour’s garden – only to end up with a retail park built in the field behind them.