Azara Blog: UK has a residential property problem

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Date published: 2007/06/14

The BBC says:

Homes are springing up in back yards as the property boom continues. MPs are fighting for a bill to curtail the practice, but does the squeeze on land mean gardens are endangered?

So there you are living in leafy suburbia, children playing in immaculately coiffured gardens and along comes a property developer.

Sadly, the only trees he's interested in are the ones that go to make banknotes. And he has a plan for that house for sale next door.
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An increasingly solitary population, immigration, wealthy second home-owners and the general mania for house-buying are putting immense pressure on some areas of the country.

One of the results is "garden grabbing". Developers buy a house with a generous garden, apply for planning permission to demolish the house and build either flats, or even a mini-estate in its place.
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This is happening because the law allows gardens to be classified as "brownfield" sites, in the same category as former industrial and commercial property. Councils have targets to meet for new houses and for brownfield building - thus gardens are being lost, the campaigners say.
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For the property developers, the motivations are obvious. Without the need for new roads or services, profit margins might be higher. And a dense development in an established suburb can be a safer bet than a genuine brownfield site.

Put bluntly, given the choice of moving to a purpose-built flat on the site of an old heavy metals factory, many buyers find they hanker for a berth in Acacia Avenue.
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Apart from the loss of green spaces, trees and barriers to traffic noise, current occupants are often left facing a brick wall through their kitchen window. In particularly expensive areas like London, new buildings perch uncomfortably in former gardens, looking rather like a game of residential hide-and-seek.
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[ The Department for Communities and Local Government ] says 18% of all new dwellings are on residential land, up from 11% in 1997. But that includes a house being turned into flats, or a demolish-and-rebuild project that occupies the same amount of space. It keeps no separate statistics on how much garden space has been lost.
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There is immense pressure on the government to provide more houses, and some wonder whether greenbelt land will have to be sacrificed in order to meet the need for affordable houses.

Television gardener Diarmuid Gavin said the loss of gardens, while sad, might be viewed as acceptable if it saves vast areas of the countryside from being built on.

There is plenty of land, at least outside the M25. It's just that the ruling elite refuse to let most of it be developed (witness the statement by Gavin). And the BBC is incorrect in its claim that old industrial and commercial property is somehow more brownfield than most back gardens. In Cambridge, the airport will some day be redeveloped. It is classified as brownfield although most of it is as green as any of the parks in the city centre that the academic middle class rave about. And similarly, Oakington airfield is about to be redeveloped, and it is classified as brownfield, but again it is as green as any of the nearby agricultural fields. Indeed, given that it has been fairly neglected the last few years, it is if anything more green.

The real problem with building on back gardens is that the neighbours are not compensated for the resulting decline in the value of their own property. Indeed, you cannot object to any planning proposal based on economic loss, only loss of privacy and other less important matters. So if your neighbour wants to build a block of flats on their back garden, you are effectively being forced to write a cheque to them for possibly tens of thousands of pounds. If this anomaly was ended (i.e. neighbours were properly compensated) then building on back gardens would be less of an issue and would indeed happen less frequently.

Meanwhile, the BBC also says:

The Liberal Democrats want to "ensure the face of council housing is changed forever" by building a million social homes over the next 10 years.

Sir Menzies Campbell said it was a "national disgrace" that cities are "too often known for 'sink estates'".

He also suggested councils could buy land from farmers then sell it on at a profit to developers.
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Sir Menzies said more radical action was needed and he called for a "revolution" in social housing, with 100,000 low-cost homes to be built per year.

"Social housing has become ghettoised - assigned only to the poorest and most vulnerable - with just one third of working age tenants in full-time jobs," said Sir Menzies.

"We need to break the pattern of the past 10 years with a revolution in housing policy."
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Sir Menzies suggested those priced out of the property market could be helped by local authorities selling council houses at cost price, but retaining part ownership and allowing them to control the price of future sales.

When buying green field sites, farmers would be told that planning permission would only be granted if they sold the land to the council.

The council would then secure planning permission and sell the plot on to developers, keeping the profit to pay for local services.

The Lib Dems said landowners would take part because they could still sell for more money than the land was worth without permission.

But the Lib Dem scheme was criticised by the Country Land and Business Association, who described it as "completely divorced from reality".

President David Fursdon said the system was "open to so much abuse" as councils would be deciding whether to grant permission for schemes that would make them huge sums of money.

"And why is it that it's OK for the local authority to do something on the land when it's not for the private landowner?" he asked.

This is slightly bizarre. Campbell says cities are allegedly known for sink estates but then wants to build lots more. And the idea that local authorties should "control the price of future sales" of council houses is outrageous. Part equity is already a poor idea in many ways (e.g. because it discourages anyone from upgrading the property) but not getting a market rate at sale time is far worse.

On the other hand, the answer to why "it's OK for the local authority to do something on the land when it's not for the private landowner" is because the government is supposed to look after the interests of everybody, not just the few. And the government has exactly this right to take over land for building motorways, etc. Of course this power should not be used lightly. And Fursdon is at least correct that local authorities would likely behave corruptly (selling on the land at less than market value to their friends). The current, section 106, rules are already fairly corrupt (since the procedure is not open). Where this is a load of money to be made, corruption is bound to follow.

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