UK Government

Communities and Local Government: Healey calls on councils to use their powers to stop 'garden grabbing'

Press Release   •   Jan 20, 2010 11:15 GMT

Housing and Planning Minister John Healey today published new, independent research that shows inappropriate building on back gardens is not a widespread, national problem and is often linked to councils’ failure to have local policies in place.

He told the small minority of councils who reported issues in "hot spot" areas that the power to act is already in their own hands if they establish clear, local policies.

363 local planning authorities were approached for their views. Of the 127 who responded, less than half (50 councils) considered it an issue in their areas. Of those who reported a problem, only 5 per cent (7 councils) had specific, local policies in place. The report concludes that councils with local plans in place were more successful at stopping inappropriate development on garden land. In 2007-2008, 6892 dwellings were refused on appeal and 1739 were granted permission (approximately only one in five), demonstrating that independent Planning Inspectors uphold decisions to stop development if local policies are in place.

Nevertheless, Mr Healey promised action to head off any current or future problems by today strengthening national policy advice, to make crystal clear that previously developed land, which can include garden land, is not necessarily suitable for development, and that the decisions to stop unsuitable building on gardens rest at a local level.

The intensive, countrywide review by Kingston University was commissioned last year to assess the nature and extent of the issue across the country and how it could be tackled. Garden grabbing can affect the character of an area if very different properties are built alongside family homes. The research concluded that although the issue is not a widespread national problem, a minority of councils in London, the South East and West Midlands had reported an impact in their areas.

Mr Healey has today issued strengthened national planning guidance and instructed the Chief Planning Officer, Steve Quartermain, to write to planners across the country outlining how councils can identify and deal with garden grabbing through local plans, in turn giving them greater discretion to refuse inappropriate development.

Mr Healey said:

"Councils are leaving an open door for inappropriate development if they do not have local plans in place, and the power to stop this lies in their hands. Councils already have the tools they need to deal with this issue and this evidence shows that when they have a local policy in place they can accurately judge the need for new homes on previously developed land, using their own discretion, and protect the essence of a neighbourhood.

"If those areas that have reported a problem don't want to see developments on garden land, they are tying their own hands by not having a local plan in place. This evidence shows that planning inspectors will support local authorities in rejecting inappropriate buildings in gardens if there is a clear idea of what the area needs.

"Over time, so-called 'garden grabbing' can change the look and feel of a community without giving local people a choice, so it is good news that councils have told our independent experts that it is not a problem in the large majority of areas. I am determined to keep it that way and to see tougher action in a small number of garden grabbing hotspots.

"For my part, I am changing the official guidance for planners to make it crystal clear that previously developed or former garden land is not necessarily suitable for development, and that the impact on the surrounding area should be considered."

The research demonstrates that local authorities can deal successfully with unwanted applications for garden development through the development of strong local policies. The report also finds that the Planning Inspectorate, the Government agency that deals with appeals, are supportive of local authority decisions about whether or not to develop on garden land, especially where local policies are in place.

Notes to editors

1. The final report by Kingston University: “Garden Developments: Understanding the Issues” is available on the CLG website: www.communities.gov.uk/publications/planningandbuilding/gardendevelopments.

2. The whole of any housing plot, including any garden, is usually classed as “brownfield” or previously developed land. The Government recognises the concerns that some people have about the loss of gardens, and wants to make it clear that there is no presumption in favour of granting applications for housing development on garden land. The Government’s Planning Policy Statement 3 (PPS3) will be strengthened today to make it clear that there is no presumption that all previously developed land, including garden land, is necessarily suitable for development.

3. PPS3 (available online): www.communities.gov.uk/publications/planningandbuilding/pps3housing offers guidance to councils so that they can tackle obstacles in the planning system which mean that not enough suitable sites are available to deliver the homes families and local people need. The guidance says sets out that councils need to identify suitable land for housing over a 15 year period, to ensure the delivery of houses are not held up.

4. The clear priority for development will remain previously-developed or brownfield land. The latest provisional estimates for 2008 show that 79% of homes were built on brownfield land, up from 56% in 1997, exceeding the target of 60 per cent.

5. The Government committed to carry out a review establishing the extent of development on back gardens following the Planning Act 2008. It said that if the evidence discloses a problem, it would look at how best to remedy the situation, provided that any changes should not have the effect of undermining our objectives on housing.

6. The study started in May 2009 and gathered feedback from 127 councils. Key findings include:

  • the overall conclusion is that the matter of garden development, which has proved to be contentious over recent years, is not of national scope (just over a third of councils who responded considered it to be an issue of some kind – 50 out of 127 or 39%). For some authorities it is of major importance; for others it simply is not. The geographical distribution of LPAs who self-report that it is an issue is concentrated in London, the south east and the west midlands, with the south east reporting the highest level of significance. Analysis of the results by type of authority revealed that the significance is greatest in significantly or semi rural areas and least in large urban authorities, although outer suburban areas of London were an exception to this.

  • no authority questioned for this research wanted to see a blanket ban on development;

  • the research concludes that those councils who were aware of their policy strategy and were able to comment upon it in the response, whether it be related to what they considered to be a specific area approach or a more district wide strategy, were more successful at defending their refusal decisions than those who were unaware of policy strategy in relation to garden development.

  • the research also finds that the Planning Inspectorate are supportive of the majority of decisions made by local authorities on such land – especially where local policies are in place (in 2007-08, 6892 dwellings were refused on appeal, with 1739 granted).

  • although housing development on gardens is significant in some areas, the report finds that of the authorities who took part in the review, over the five-year period there has been no significant increase (year on year) in the amount of housing provided on garden land. Further findings also show that in the areas where garden land development has increased, the same number of developments were refused.

  • the sporadic nature of garden development means that Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) sometimes have no clear understanding of the cumulative effect it has on the social or physical environment. It was established that LPAs need to understand the local pressures and deal with them accordingly, in particular through developing local policies in partnership with relevant local stakeholders and with support from elected members;

  • analysing the data regionally and by authority classification across the entire period, shows that garden development provides a more significant contribution to housing stock in large urban, major urban and also significantly rural authorities.

  • further analysis showed that garden developments contribute most to the housing stock in areas where house prices are in the region of £300,000, which is well above the national average house price. There is a considerable contribution made where prices are in the region £150,000 - £300,000 but towards the top end of the housing market, where average prices exceed £500,000, the contribution made is almost non-existent. Similarly there is little activity within the bottom price section, which is just under £150,000.

7. Local authorities have successfully used local policies to determine garden development applications and defend decisions at appeal. These policies are generally used in addition to general housing and design policies. The examples cited in the research, are:

  • London Borough of Hillingdon

Residential / Urban Design policy: Identifies key objectives, criteria and issues for consideration in the design of residential developments. The plan cross-references other relevant local policies, covers a range of issues with density and design, and specifically looks at integrating development within residential areas. The policy states that strict adherence alone to principles in the design guide does not guarantee planning permission. It also looks at the prevention of development exceeding a set percentage of housing on a particular street.

  • London Borough of Sutton

Loss of Garden Land policy: Lays out the reasons for resisting development on garden land where it is considered to be of local ecological value and how to determine the ecological value of such land.

Minimum Standards for Private Garden Space policy: Sets local minimum standards for provision of private garden space depending on type & size of dwelling and prevents curtilages being sub-divided into excessively small plots.

  • Reigate & Banstead Borough Council

Specific Garden Development policy: Sets out a range of criteria which developments on garden land must comply with and discourages ad hoc developments on gardens.

  • Swindon Borough Council

Garden Development policy: Sets out requirements with which garden development must comply, including pictures to illustrate the criteria and provides clear examples of acceptable and unacceptable development with references to relevant local appeal decisions.

  • Warwick District Council

Parking standards: Specific parking policy for residential developments. Allows refusal of development that causes additional on-street parking. Links to limitations on applications and grants for parking for new developments in residential areas.

  • Woking District Council

Character statement or plan: Outlines key areas of special character which are worthy of retention. Provides a detailed definition of the 'character' within each particular area. Sets out general principles and features of future development within these areas. Particular mentions of the character of plots and gardens and in some cases indication that further garden and infill development would harm character.

  • Tandridge District Council

Housing Need policy: Sets out the basis for discretion to refuse development on where housing supply has been exceeded or where the 'need' for a particular type of development has been met.

8. Local authorities who are concerned about the loss of garden land should make it clear in their Local Development Frameworks what their position is. Currently only a few authorities (5% of those authorities who reported an issue) have clear policies in place. The Chief Planning Officer in CLG has written to all authorities explaining this in more detail.

Contacts

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