New rules could help residents keep gardens green

By Peter Jackson
BBC News

Image caption, Campaigners say their borough has been turned into a "concrete jungle"

The UK's endless demand for new homes regularly pits residents against developers in the fight for precious green space, but tighter planning rules in England have handed the former fresh hope.

News that councils in England are to get greater powers to stop developers building on gardens has been welcomed in one small corner of south-west London.

Gardens have previously been classified as "brownfield" sites, in the same category as ex-factory and railway land. Now ministers are reclassifying gardens, making them less open to development.

Those who tend to object to building on such land often call it "garden-grabbing". But for others - who say it is better described less emotively as "in-fill" or "making best use of land" - the new policy is in danger of becoming a "nimby's charter".

For residents in one street in East Sheen, Richmond-upon-Thames, the changes are welcome, yet three years of protests have left them battle-hardened and fearful of further twists in their very local saga.

The object of their woes is a house in a 325ft (100m) garden plot containing mature trees, a historic wall and shrubs.

'Hideous chalets'

Developer Grayswood Properties wants the property flattened and the garden concreted over to make way for four two-bedroom houses, four one-bedroom flats and an underground car park.

Residents say the proposals are wildly over-intensive for their small cul-de-sac and would rob them of vital green space.

So far, each of the developer's three separately submitted plans has been rejected by Richmond Council, but locals expect more to follow.

They have variously called the proposals "insensitive", "obtrusive", "monstrous" and the buildings "hideous chalets" or a "Colditz-style prison block".

Amanda Wilson, chairwoman of campaign group SOS Avenue Gardens, told the BBC: "They [the developer] are likely to reapply. I just dread the day we get the next letter from them saying they've put in their next planning proposal.

"Even now, we'll be fighting them to get something reasonable there, something in keeping with the street.

"I really think they will have to look closely at what would be acceptable and keep as much green space as possible.

"There's room for a couple of houses in there but they should not be so greedy to cram in the highest density development they could."

The proportion of new houses built on previously residential land such as gardens has risen sharply from one in 10 to one in four between 1997 and 2008, government figures show.

Even when local councils back residents and reject proposals, their decision is often overruled on appeal.

Every appeal case is dealt with by the Planning Inspectorate - an independent government body based in Bristol.

Ms Wilson's campaign group has been particularly pro-active, organising sit-ins, camping in the street, and gathering a 2,000-name petition.

It has also been personally backed by some fairly high-profile public figures.

The area's former Liberal Democrat MP Susan Kramer, her successor, Conservative Zac Goldsmith, and Richmond Council's leader Nicholas True have all lent their support.

Mr True said the development was a "particularly appalling" example of "garden-grabbing" and he would be delighted if the new planning rules handed the residents victory.

"This issue is not about affordable housing as some have tried to claim," he said of the new powers for councils.

"It is about the greed of a small number of developers and landowners who, for short-term gain, are willing to ruin the character of local areas for everyone and forever."

Lending practices

But Abigail Davies, head of policy at the Chartered Institute of Housing, said she questioned the wisdom of preventing building homes on gardens when there was so much need for urban housing and so much pressure against building on green-belt land.

"I think the idea that there are enormous green spaces is a little misleading.

"When there are so many people who are unable to meet their housing needs, there has to be a more sophisticated way of dealing with biodiversity in urban spaces than just banning all further development.

Image caption, Richmond Park MP Zac Goldsmith joins Ms Wilson at the development site

"A lot of people who are not supportive of this kind of development would be even less supportive of development on areas out of town," she said.

She added: "There has been a lot of development on these sites but there has been a lot of development everywhere as a result of the lending practices and land prices we have had."

"There needs to be a greater sophistication in assessing what local people do need because people who are well-housed have a stronger voice in most communities than people who would benefit from this kind of development.

"This change in law doesn't need to be a nimby's charter, but it runs the risk of being one."

But Ms Wilson described the changes to the planning rules as "fantastic" not just for her group but for villages, town and cities across the country.

Whether SOS Avenue Gardens is ultimately successful or not - a spokesman for Grayswood Properties declined to comment on the case - they probably have a better chance than most to protect their dwindling open spaces.

However for thousands of people who have been less persistent and organised, that opportunity has already passed.

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