The new Tory policy is right. Labour has been too afraid of the Nimbys
It took about half an hour for the nation’s housebuilders to rush out their press statements in reaction to yesterday’s announcement that back gardens are no longer going to be classified as brownfield land — something that will make it much harder for developers to demolish family homes in large gardens and replace them with blocks of flats.
How dare the Government give in to the Nimbys, complained the builders; our back gardens are the solution to the housing shortage. True, the new rules are calculated to appeal to suburban Tories. They were formulated by Greg Clark, Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells, whose constituents have been pestering him on the issue for years.
It is the same in the pleasant suburbs of small towns all over the South East. A couple of years ago I met up with a group of Surrey neighbours who had hardly ever spoken to each other — until drawn together at coffee mornings provoked by a developer who wanted to replace one house with eight flats.
But the housebuilders have missed the point. The whole reason we have ended up with “garden grabbing” is because John Prescott set out to appease Nimbys. He didn’t want to upset Labour’s newfound middle-class voters in the South East and so almost completely halted building homes in the country. Instead, new homes were forced on to brownfield sites and back gardens at 30 to the hectare.
Nimbys have a lot to thank Labour for: in no other 13-year period during the past century and a half has the front of urban development in the South East advanced so slowly. With a few exceptions, such as Ashford, Kent, the boundary of most towns lies more or less where it did in 1997.
There has been a terrible price to pay, however: homebuyers of modest means have been made to huddle together in little hutches barely fit for human habitation, either in back gardens or on the sites of old gasworks. Wildlife, much of which prefers back gardens to the grim monoculture of fields, has been decimated.
Yes, garden grabbing should be stopped. The proper place to build homes is at lower densities on agricultural land. Thanks to EU subsidies, much of this land is sucking wealth out of the economy. Allowing more of it to be turned over to housing and businesses, on the other hand, would create wealth, as well as giving people what they want.
In overturning the classification of gardens as brownfield land and abolishing the targets for building homes at high densities, the Government is halfway there. Now it just needs to go the whole hog and loosen the restrictions on building in the countryside. It won’t please Nimbys, but it will give hard-working people somewhere decent to live.