Mary Dejevsky: It's time to grab back our gardens

Gardens are not brown-field sites. They are an integral part of the suburban landscape; they are what makes it desirable and family-friendly

Share
Related Topics

Ten years ago I was living in Washington DC and observing a truly distressing phenomenon. Established houses in the nearest city suburbs were being extended or replaced, up to the very edge of the plot. The older clapboard and brick houses which had sat neatly on their lots, with a deck and gardens front and back, were swelling every which way into ill-proportioned monsters. It was only when the conservationist outcry could no longer be ignored that the authorities finally decreed a – modest – minimum space between the border of an existing plot and new building.

By then, though, regulation-lite had done its worst. In the five years we were in Washington, not only was much of the closest countryside, in Maryland, despoiled by a rash of "McMansions", but my favourite inner suburb, a bucolic and rather Russian-looking area known as Palisades, above the Potomac river, had shed much of its charm, to resemble just another congested estate.

On returning to the UK, alas, we found the self-same phenomenon well in train, with a very British twist. Not only had the front garden become, as though by decree, hard-standing for the car(s), but the treasured back garden was under threat. All or part of the green space that had helped sell the house to successive owners was being sold to developers, and the householders – how could you blame them? – were cashing in their gains.

The mystery to me was not why they were selling – that was brutally obvious – but why such sales, which progressively transformed the character of a neighbourhood, had become such seemingly routine transactions. Was it not extraordinary that the suburban house and garden, for so long the English family's dream, was being so casually sacrificed to a far denser form of urban development? And that it was entirely legal.

Severe complications faced householders who resisted. Either they became the stand-outs on the block, ostracised by their neighbours for blocking their fast track to pension security, or they became embroiled in time-consuming agitation to demonstrate, by dint of scouring the plans and taking photographs, that the planned development would obscure the light (one of the few reasons why planning permission could be refused).

I had hoped that the simultaneous trend, at least in London, for houses divided into flats to be converted back into family homes, would slow the disappearance of back gardens. But no; developers only struck out into leafier and leafier suburbs, with bigger and bigger gardens. With school playing fields no longer inviolate, private green space was now vanishing in the same silent and apparently uncontentious way.

So it was with some satisfaction that I learnt of the new government's plan to give councils new powers to stop the development of back gardens. In fact, it has been a good week for green space, what with Prince William championing the cause of school playing fields. But the builders-over seem intent on going down fighting. Anyone who heard the ding-dong between Zac Goldsmith, the new Conservative MP for Richmond Park, and the former deputy prime minister, John Prescott, on yesterday's BBC Today programme will have a foretaste of the battle to come.

Time and again, Prescott put himself forward as the advocate of the disadvantaged, insisting that suburban gardens had to be built on, if the acute shortage of affordable homes was to be addressed. Goldsmith disagreed. Manners, vocabulary and accents all served to give this exchange a distinct edge of good old-fashioned class warfare: Zac, the old (expelled) Etonian squillionaire, defending the ancestral rights of the squirearchy to preserve not only their own, but next-door's, back garden, against proletarian Prezza's concern for the impoverished man, woman and child, begging in vain for a tiny slice of land at the rich man's remote-controlled front gate.

As a dedicated flat-dweller, blissfully content to be free of garden chores, I have no special interest to defend. Nor am I unaware that there is an acute shortage of housing in the south-east, as in desirable rural areas – at least housing that anyone on an average salary can afford. But I have to say that my sympathies are with the Government here, and the proposal of the Communities minister that back gardens should be reclassified as "green-field", rather than "brown-field", for planning purposes. This would would make it much harder for developers or anyone else to build on them.

The real question – scandal, anyone? – is why back gardens were ever classed as brown-field sites at all. I have heard it said that home-owners would otherwise have found it nigh impossible to build the conservatories, gazebos and garden offices that have become the totems of suburban one-upmanship. But there is quite a difference between even the most elaborate garden office and a brand new house or block of flats. Prescott's argument that brown-field classification of gardens has released more land for housing seems more than answered by Goldsmith's point that, given the choice, developers prefer gardens to industrial brown-field sites, because they require less preparation. Of course they would.

The truth is that developers should never have been given that choice. Gardens are not brown-field sites. They are an integral part of the suburban landscape; they are what makes it desirable and family-friendly; they allow people space to breathe, provide children with safe spaces to play and give teenagers hot-weather options other than opening water hydrants in the street.

Affordable family housing is in short supply, but the way to start remedying that is not by concreting over gardens, but by bringing unused housing into use, developing real brown-field sites and removing the tax incentives for investing in tiny flats few want to live in long term. The housing market in this country has been skewed by over-generous credit, perverse incentives for building and owning, and a failure to compensate for the loss of social housing from "the right to buy". If allowed to continue, the "garden grab" of recent years would only reduce the supply of family homes further. That is not a class-based or elitist conclusion, it is elementary common sense.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ed Miliband  

Rochester by-election: A little respect goes a long way, Ed Miliband

John Rentoul
Among the ‘extreme’ ideas favoured by Neil Findlay is the re-nationalisation of Scottish railways  

Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

DJ Taylor
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin