One of the new coalition Government’s first acts after the General Election was to honour its pledge to end garden grabbing, or in other words, allowing developers to cram flats and high density housing on to the suburban gardens of Middle England.
In the last decade some of the West Midlands’ more affluent suburbs including Sutton Coldfield, Solihull, Edgbaston and Hall Green have seen developers snap up large gardens and turn them into blocks of flats, terraced houses and even tiny cul-de-sacs.
It was all a result of the misguided planning policy of former Labour Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who reclassified suburban gardens as previously developed land, treating them as brownfield sites, like derelict factory land.
The housing boom saw developers rush to the suburbs, where property is more desirable and more lucrative while the rubble-strewn and often contaminated derelict factory sites remained largely untouched.
It saw a housing market providing high-priced apartments in upmarket suburbs rather than feeding the demand for low cost family homes and, consequently, the only winners were the developers and anyone with a large garden to sell.
Local planning committees who stood up to the developers were soon beaten into submission by the threat of costly legal action.
That was set to change with the arrival of the new Government.
Residents who had watched helplessly while their neighbourhoods were transformed placed their hopes in the Conservative Party’s pledge to end garden grabbing.
And when in June the new Communities Minister Greg Clark announced that gardens were no longer brownfield sites or previously developed land it was claimed that the character of Middle England was now preserved.
He said that this was the beginning of a wide reform of the planning system which would empower local councils and local communities, giving them more control over development.
But the experience in Solihull this week shows very little has changed, that the policy has not done what it set out to do.
Two garden developments have gone through with the local planning committee powerless to stop them and a local Conservative councillor announcing that nothing has really changed.
Birmingham’s acting chief planning officer John Culligan arrived at the same conclusion last month when he said that if the intention is to stop or reduce garden grabbing, it will not do that.
So, despite all the rhetoric from the coalition that garden grabbing would be prevented, the reality is very different.
It may have been a desperate attempt by a Government making huge cutbacks to rush a popular policy through.
But the Government clearly failed to consult planning officers, who perhaps would have warned that despite such a policy, developers are still free to concrete over suburban gardens.
What is needed is a fundamental reform of the planning system that is rooted in common sense and sufficiently flexible to allow communities to fulfil their increasingly urgent housing needs.
Otherwise, for all the noise and bluster on garden grabbing, the new Government’s approach appears to be very much the same as the old Government’s.