Last Rites For The Front Garden

Last month, the Royal Commision on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) published a report, ‘The Urban Environment’ , expressing astonishment that “on the eve of the new phase of urban regeneration and expansion, we lack an over-arching urban environment policy to coordinate the provision of housing, transport, energy and other vital services”. It makes a number of important recommendations aimed at developing environmentally sustainable urban environments. This requires a robust planning framework, and it is vital that the current planning system, however flawed and timid, is not dismantled, particularly during a period of major urban development when it is most needed. Since 80% of the UK population lives in towns and cities, there’s something here for most of us.

The report has 232 pages, and we don’t have the space here to cover all of it. One thing that caught my eye was the section on the continuing trend of paving over front gardens to provide off-road parking space. This issue has been getting regular coverage in the media, but for those of you who’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few years, here’s a brief overview of the reasons why it’s a Bad Thing.

Currently, the highest profile problem caused by hard surfaces is that of flooding. Rain water no longer has a quick and easy route back into the ground, but goes straight to the nearest gutter. Ancient drainage systems are overwhelmed, leading to headlines about sewage in the Thames. Pollutants such as oils, chemicals and heavy metals that would normally be filtered by the soil go straight into water courses. Runoff disrupts water catchments, leading to empty aquifers and reservoirs, and hosepipe bans.

Removal of vegetation means a loss of wildlife habitats, greater urban heat effects and reduced resilience against climate change and extreme weather events. Dry subsoils increase the risk of subsidence. There are many social and sustainability implications: loss of privacy and amenity, reduced property values, increased traffic volume and speed in residential streets, increased danger for cyclists and pedestrians, the devaluation of the streetscape as a social space.

The RCEP report points out that such small-scale changes have an important cumulative effect:

  • An area 22 times the size of London’s Hyde Park has been lost as a result of converting many of London’s front gardens to hard-standing.
  • Even greater proportions have been lost elsewhere in the country, with an estimated 47% of front gardens in North-East England being more than three-quarters paved.

The RCEP recommends that “local planning authorities use supplementary planning guidance to minimise the use of hard-standing, and require the use of permeable surfaces for paving and car parking.” Which is pretty wishy-washy really, and is a joke to anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of the UK planning system. In 2003 the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) published a Review of Permitted Development Rights which recommended that planning permission should be required for any hard surfacing where the total area of any existing and new hard surface would exceed the lesser of 15 square metres or 50% of the garden area. This report was quietly shelved. Magnificently detailed research conducted by Local Agenda 21 in the London Borough of Ealing was ignored by everyone except a few journalists. A subsequent document by the London Assembly (Crazy Paving, 2005) is an excellent source of information on this problem, but contents itself with calling for “consultation” and “seminars”, and recommending that planning law be amended to enable local authorities to require planning applications for pavement crossovers. It ducked the entire issue with the words “There is nothing in planning or any other law to prevent a homeowner from covering their front garden with concrete or any other surface. Nor should there be – it is for individuals to decide what to do with their own gardens”.

It seems that, while everybody accepts this is a major environmental and social problem, nobody has the courage to do anything about it. Meanwhile, the hand-wringing and the destruction continue.

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12 Responses to Last Rites For The Front Garden

  1. earthpal says:

    Hi Pete. Yes, goodness me! Taking up your point about the front garden becoming a crazy-paved work of art…I’ve been noticing this trend for ages now (I wish I’d thought to blog about it).

    Not only is it a shame that people have a deeper desire to look out at concrete than they have of looking at green gardens, it’s also indicative of the fact that households now have more cars, and that they place more importance on having private space to park those cars than they do on having natural enviro-friendly green front views.

    Give me grass any day. Erm…no, not that sort of grass!!

  2. Pete Smith says:

    Hi earthpal.
    In 2004 I did a survey of the 257 front gardens in my road for a university project. I found that an area roughly equivalent to half that covered by the houses themselves had been paved over. If someone suggested that another 120 houses were going to be squeezed in between the existing ones, there would be uproar. It only escapes notice because it’s a sequence of tiny changes spread out over time. Not that anyone can do anything about it anyway, because the planning system defines any change to the surface within a property boundary as a ‘permitted development’. It’s a rolling nightmare.

  3. the Grit says:

    Hi Pete,

    Of course, with the garden and grass come lawn mowers, weed eaters, leaf blowers, and all sorts of chemical treatments for pest control, weed control, disease control, and fertilizer. Add to that the pollution from the transportation hired gardeners will use to get back and forth. Oh, and don’t forget the stores to sell all these things. While it may not be as environmentally friendly as it appears at first glance, it makes good economic sense.

    the Grit

  4. earthpal says:

    Pete, interesting survey. Good one. And yes, nightmare it is.

    Grit, total rubbish! There’s absolutely no need for all that. And no need to use such chemicals on our lawns. You’re just speaking from your own enviro(less)-mentality. There are climate-friendly grass-cutters available. And the cut grass can be left on the lawn instead of being cleared. You just need to go over it again and it will become like mulch which will, in turn, negate the need for chemicals. And in desperate cases, there are organic alternatives to the pesticides.

    Nice try Grit.

  5. Pete Smith says:

    Hi The Grit,

    An interesting perspective, glad you brought it up. Bear in mind that this is a FRONT garden phenomenon. Google Earth shows that round here most back gardens are still green with lawns and other vegetation. They still need management, possibly using the items you describe, although personally I’ve always managed to get by with just a lawn-mower. And even a totally paved front garden needs looking after: weeding, tidying up rubbish that has blown in because the physical barriers have been removed.
    As for making economic sense… paving is not a cheap business, it seems that the cheapest cowboy paver will charge £1500+, which will probably require remedial surgery pretty quickly as the inadequate foundations sag. Add to that the council fee (about £350 last time I looked) for the pavement crossover, and you’d need some serious savings on gardening services and materials for this to be cost effective.
    The environmental costs from subsidence and flooding are considerable, with knock-on costs for all of us, not just those ‘downstream’, from increased insurance premiums.
    And finally, there are costs in terms of loss of property value. This is an interesting variation on the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ scenario, with the streetscape as a shared resource held in common. The first home-owner to pave may well get a slight selling price premium from having off-street parking while his neighbours don’t. As they all follow suit, that advantage disappears. When all neighbours have paved, there is a loss in value because of the impact on the local environment.

    All the best, Pete

  6. the Grit says:

    Hi earthpal,

    While people could do without, they won’t. Well, at least not in the US. Y’all may not be as gadget crazy and competitive as we are 🙂

    Hi Pete,

    What you say is most interesting. I had no idea that construction costs were so in your area, or that there was a paving tax. Bits of information like this are why I love the Internet. Of course, if everyone parks on the street, then the street may need to be widened to meet the increased demand. Since I live on a farm, I appreciate the insight into the troubles of city dwellers.

    the Grit

  7. matt says:

    I have a manual mower. Wonderful things. But then, I don’t live on a ranch.

  8. earthpal says:

    Grit, fair point that people will take the easy option. That’s why our government’s need to slap the VAT on enviro-unfriendly goods.

    Welcome back Matt.

  9. matt says:

    Thanks earthpal. Yes, tax the naughty things out of existence ( whispers… ‘except chocolate’ 😉 ).

  10. matt says:

    Pete. Council in my area heard your calls. Local council propaganda mag that drops through the door each month has an article entitled ‘Crazy Paving’. Yup, it’s all true. They have brought in measures to make it harder to ‘carpark’ your front yard. They say they would have liked to go further but, the law won’t allow it.

    Details;
    (a) Aimed at CPZ areas only (unfortunately)
    (b) Must have at least 4.8m length available
    (c) Application fee up from 50 to 100 quid
    (d) If successful a crossover now incurs fees of £1300 for changes to traffic orders – the legal documents required for such work.
    (e) There will be increases to construction & supervision charges

    Iow this council is aggravating the situation as much as the law will allow them to. Impressive stuff. Beat that Bromley!

  11. the Grit says:

    Hi y’all,

    Except over here, taxing the naughty things out of existence would lead to another revolution, seeing as how we have kept the right to own firearms. Thus, we need to consider less Big Brother methods of manipulating the population. For instance, in the case of the human powered mower, which are really better for small yards as they give a better cut, why not advertise them as exercise equipment?

    the Grit

  12. matt says:

    … oh an ‘obesity regulator’ or something like that! Tackling obesity over here is the latest government ‘big brother’ drive. Nice idea Grit. Just back from holiday myself and having seen too many really gross fat kids out & about, I think a new regime for kids ‘exercise while you mow’ sounds sweet. 🙂

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