What price Eden when builders offer the earth?

If you have a big garden, developers may be poised to bid high for your home. But a mass of new flats, says Sue Hayward, could spoil the local area

It may be great for the value of your house but what about the neighbourhood or the local wildlife? "Garden grabbing" is a new phenomenon in towns and cities across the country as developers buy up family homes with large gardens, demolish them and fling up several more properties on the site, typically flats, for potentially big profits.

The Government's house- building target of three million new homes by 2020 has put many local authorities under pressure to grant planning permission to developers for gardens, which are classified as "brownfield" in the same way as factory sites or industrial estates because they represent previously developed land. With the Government wanting a large proportion of the new homes to be built on brownfield sites, it's easy to see why some homeowners, particularly in the densely populated South-east, are now a target for eager developers offering above the market value.

Kate Faulkner, a property investor and founder of the advice website www.designsonproperty.co.uk, says garden grabbing has its place but not if the neighbourhood suffers as a result. "Done well, it's a fabulous way to help out with the housing stock. but it's about getting a balance. There need to be planning laws in place to encourage developers to build what's in keeping with the local area; it's no good producing simply what maximises a developer's profit."

Oliver Hartwich from Policy Exchange, an independent thinktank, says local authorities will find it hard to refuse planning permission. "Garden grabbing ticks the boxes for councils; they're developing brownfield sites and providing extra homes."

On the downside, he adds, while more people will be moving into an area as the new developments come up, the councils won't be getting any extra money to improve the local infrastructure accordingly.

Mr Hartwich believes that reclassifying gardens as greenfield would help slow the garden-grabbing stampede. Last year, this was the main proposal of the Land Use (Gardens Protection) Bill drawn up by Greg Clark, the Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells. Although this didn't progress beyond a second reading in Parliament, he is "planning an opportunity to relaunch it this year".

But Kate Gordon at the Campaign to Protect Rural England disagrees with the idea of reclassifying gardens: "This would be a logistical nightmare, with the only people to benefit being the lawyers". And homeowners could face problems, she adds, "if they want to put down patios or concrete over parts of their garden".

Ms Gordon believes local authorities need to scrutinise plans more closely so that any redevelopment is in keeping with the neighbourhood and precious green space in urban areas is not lost for ever.

This has been the common gripe where developments have gone ahead – that they have changed the character of the local area and spoilt the neighbours' views. "A mass influx of apartments has been the prominent result of big houses being knocked down in recent years," claims Stewart Lilly, the president of the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA).

But according to the property developers, flats and apartments are needed to address the housing shortage. "Sure, I'd rather be building family homes instead of blocks of flats," says Terry Fox, director of Fox Homes, "but the priorities are changing and we're merely addressing the needs of the market." By this, he means the increase in single households and the consequent demand for smaller properties, often following divorce.

For homeowners deciding to take the developers up on their offers, timing is crucial. "Some people will sell cheaply while others hold out till the end of the process", says Mr Fox. In one case, he claims, the difference in price between the first and last person to sell was 10-fold.

Garden grabbing can also spell a bumper pay-day for estate agents if they tip off developers about the rebuilding potential of a property. "They may get a percentage of the sale and the chance to market any new-build properties," says Mr Fox.

But this raises all sorts of moral and regulatory issues, as Mr Lilly at the NAEA explains. "If an agent comes across the opportunity to sell a client's property to a developer, they're duty-bound to act in the client's best interest – not the developer's – and must let their client [the vendor] know about the situation."

He says agents found taking a fee from a developer and a house seller may be breaching NAEA rules and could be subject to disciplinary action.

'We had hoped to stay here but that's been ruined'

Pauline Halford, 60, from Chesham in Buckinghamshire, bought her three-bedroom semi-detached family home 29 years ago. She and her husband, Mike, are keen horticulturists and had fallen in love with the property as it has a 200ft garden.

It's the same garden that has now made them a target for property developers.

"We've had about 10 approaches from developers asking if we'd be interested in selling up", says Pauline. "Our house isn't actually that big but it's the size of our garden that makes it so attractive to them".

Pauline and Mike were recently offered over £100,000 to sell off their garden alone, and despite Pauline's determination to stay put, she now feels the day could come when they have to move.

"We'll be looking to retire in a few years and had hoped to spend the rest of our lives here. But this has been ruined by other neighbours selling out to developers that may build blocks of flats around us.

"As it stands, my garden is treated the same as if it were a factory site. Developers can't be bothered to knock an old factory down so they'd rather have my garden and destroy the wildlife."

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