The Government will announce new measures today to stop the practice of "garden grabbing" which has seen swathes of urban green space swallowed up by new housing developments.
Decentralisation minister Greg Clark is giving local councils immediate powers to prevent the building of new homes in back gardens, which has been on the rise in recent years.
According to the Communities and Local Government Department, the number of houses being built on gardens rose from one in 10 to a quarter of new properties between 1997 and 2008.
The problem is particularly acute in places including Guildford, Croydon, Southampton and the New Forest in the South East, Poole and Dorset in the South West, Sheffield and Solihull in the Midlands, Leeds and Wakefield in Yorkshire, South Tyneside in the North East and Norwich in Norfolk.
Town halls have struggled to stop the trend as gardens have been classified as "previously residential land", making them brownfield sites in the same category as derelict factories and old railway sidings.
Mr Clark said he would be changing the designation of gardens from brownfield land to make it easier for local authorities to stop unwanted development, allowing them to reject planning applications for new houses and blocks of flats that local people oppose and which would ruin the character of the area.
The step, which he said would not affect people who wanted to build extensions on their homes, was welcomed by garden and wildlife organisations.
The move to stop garden grabbing, promised in both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos ahead of the general election, is the latest by the Government to implement coalition pledges to hand more power to local communities.
Unveiling the plans today, Mr Clark will say: "For years the wishes of local people have been ignored as the character of neighbourhoods and gardens have been destroyed, robbing communities of vital green space.
"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.
"Today I am changing the classification of garden land so councils and communities no longer have their decisions constantly overruled, but have the power to work with industry to shape future development that is appropriate for their area.
"This is just the start of wholescale reform I want to make to the planning system, so councils and communities are centre-stage in a reformed system that works for them, and is not just a tool of top-down policy."
The Royal Horticultural Society, which warned at the Chelsea Flower Show last month that gardens were under threat from development, said it welcomed any measures that would protect the "vital resource".
Simon Thornton Wood, director of science and learning at the RHS, said: "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."
Ross Cameron, of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading, said: "Research has demonstrated that gardening can improve self-esteem, communication skills, attention span and even educational performance.
"In essence, protecting gardens is important to improve quality of life, and particularly for people in cities."
And it is not just people who benefit from green space in towns and cities, according to the RSPB.
Richard Bashford, project manager for the conservation charity, said: "Gardens are mini-nature reserves on our doorsteps and vital habitats for all sorts of wildlife.
"Many much-loved species rely on green spaces like gardens, such as the song thrush and house sparrow, both of which have suffered massive declines in the last few years.
"We hope that the new measures will protect the habitats of species that have become synonymous with English gardens and demonstrate a rich ecosystem in our own back yards, such as frogs, toads and bumblebees."
Former deputy prime minister John Prescott, who brought in the original brownfield designation for gardens, defended his policy and launched a robust attack on the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition move.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "You have got to look at how many homes we need and where they will be built. We are desperately short of land.
"We are talking about the few people who may object to the house in their street that's going to be used for social housing.
"I'm talking about families who haven't got a ruddy home...we desperately need houses. Prices are far too high.
"It's the bankers who buggered up the economy, and oddly enough it started with housing.
"It's the old Tory policy spouted by millionaires, always for the few not the many."
Tory MP and environment campaigner Zac Goldsmith told the programme: "If you lump gardens and wasteland in the same category, developers will always go for gardens because it's easier and cheaper.
"We are not saying there shouldn't be development, there are other alternatives. There are a lot of empty homes.
"We want to protect gardens so that instead of being top of the list for developers, they are at the bottom."Reuse content