Housebuilders shouldn’t fear anti-garden grabbing measures – there are worse planning changes afoot

Communities minister Greg Clark’s announcement on Wednesday of the immediate removal of garden land from the brownfield category represents for some MPs a victory in what had become an annual campaign to restrict “garden grabbing”, the development of garden land for residential use.

Until now garden land was classified in Planning Policy Statement 3 (PPS3) as “previously developed land” over which a presumption in favour of development existed. Clark’s statement has been heralded as a dramatic opportunity for local authorities to resist unwanted development in their area. The reality may be somewhat different, however.

Figures from the Communities and Local Government (CLG) department show an increase in the redevelopment of residential land from 11% in 1997 to 23% in 2008. However, this figure is for all residential land, not just garden land, and includes, for example, the demolition of blocks of flats and their replacement by houses with gardens. Research carried out by Kingston University for the previous government suggested that garden grabbing was not a national, widespread or growing concern, but was focused mainly on outer London and the South-east.

A look at the map accompanying Greg Clark’s announcement on the CLG website appears to bear this out. The “garden grabbing hotspots” identified are, in the main, the leafier suburbs of London, the South and other wealthy or desirable parts of the country: the very areas where land for housing development is already at a premium.

Perception of garden grabbing exceeds the reality

In his letter of 19 January 2010, Steve Quartermain, the chief planner at CLG, reminded local authority chief planning officers that they already had powers within the existing legislative framework to resist the development of garden land by setting out in local plans policies to resist garden development where this was not considered appropriate.

What the latest amendments do potentially is to extend that prohibition to areas not protected by local plan policies. However, all that the change does is to remove the automatic presumption in favour of development; it will not necessarily prevent the redevelopment of garden land in all cases.

As Quartermain pointed out in his 19 January letter, the issue is likely to arise most where a local authority cannot establish a five-year land supply. In such circumstances a local authority might well have to decide between either allowing garden land to be developed or allocating greenfield sites in its local plan. Where there is no local plan or where a five-year housing land supply cannot be established then, in the absence of other reasons that militate against development, it is more likely that planning permission for the development of garden land would be granted.

This continues to be encouraged by paragraph 71 of the revised PPS3, issued on Wednesday. However, Kingston University found that the planning inspectors had upheld four out of five refusals by local authorities to permit garden development. It would appear, based on those findings, that the perception of garden grabbing is greater than the reality.

Lower housing targets are a bigger worry

With the abolition of regional spatial strategies (although PPS3 continues to refer to them) and housing targets being pushed down to a more local level, the amount of land required to meet the five-year land supply is likely to decrease, so there may well be less pressure on local authorities to choose between greenfield sites and garden land in order to meet housing targets. Indeed, the lower housing targets that will almost certainly follow the abolition of the regional spatial strategies are far more likely to have a detrimental effect on the housebuilding industry than the anti-garden grabbing measures, as less land is identified for housing in local plans

A potential further impact is the announcement made at the same time of the scrapping of minimum housing density targets. Clark claimed that the targets had resulted in a large decline in the construction of four-bed houses and a sharp rise in two-bed flats. The housebuilding industry would probably reply that such development was in response to market demand and economics rather than to density requirements.

The problem is that where land values are high, it is difficult to build a viable low-density scheme. Lower densities are most likely to be prescribed in the leafy outer suburbs, just the areas targeted by the anti-garden grabbing measures.

The combination of the two announcements, together with cuts in funding and grants from the Homes and Communities Agency, will make the prospect of housing affordable for first-time buyers and those on low incomes in such areas a thing of the distant past. However, development of affordable and other housing in such areas has been difficult for a long time; it may become harder but, for the vast majority of the country, there is likely to be very little change indeed as a result of these measures.

Stephen Clarke is a partner and head of the construction team at national law firm Clarke Willmott, where Karen Howe is a professional support lawyer specialising in planning.