Greg Clark MP said over the last decade, many councils had been left frustrated at the increasing amount of inappropriate development on gardens which they had been unable to stop. This is because planning guidance has classified gardens as previously residential land, in the same brownfield category as derelict factories and disused railway sidings.
Recently published Government figures show that the proportion of new houses built on previously residential land such as gardens had risen dramatically, from one in ten to one in four between 1997 and 2008 — "robbing communities of green breathing space, safe places for children to play and havens for urban wildlife".
Clark unveiled plans set out in the coalition document to give councils new powers to stop ‘garden grabbing' by taking gardens out of the brownfield category, a simple step that will dramatically transform councils' ability to prevent unwanted development on gardens where local people object and protect the character of their neighbourhoods.
Greg Clark said: "For years the wishes of local people have been ignored as the character of neighbourhoods and gardens have been destroyed, robbing communities of vital green space.
"It is ridiculous that gardens have until now been classified in the same group as derelict factories and disused railway sidings, forcing councils and communities to sit by and watch their neighbourhoods get swallowed up in a concrete jungle.
"Today I am changing the classification of garden land so councils and communities no longer have their decisions constantly overruled, but have the power to work with industry to shape future development that is appropriate for their area.
"This is just the start of wholescale reform I want to make to the planning system, so councils and communities are centre-stage in a reformed system that works for them, and is not just a tool of top-down policy."
Dr Simon Thornton Wood, RHS director of science and learning, said: "We welcome any measure that protects the vital resource we know gardens to be. Gardens like parks, are the green lungs of cities, improving air quality, controlling air temperature and flood risk and providing a haven for wildlife. Beyond these very practical benefits of gardens we know that gardening is great for physical and mental health. That's why we would like planning measures to go further than protecting existing gardens, to guarantee high quality green space and gardening opportunities in all new building developments, wherever they are."
Dr Ross Cameron, School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading added: "There are real benefits that gardens bring to our quality of life. Vegetation around buildings keeps us cool in summer and reduces our energy bills in winter, as well as protecting us from flooding.
"Gardens are also great for our mental and physical wellbeing. They reduce our stress and keep us fit because we can work in the garden for hours without feeling we are doing exercise as a chore.
"Research has demonstrated that gardening can improve self-esteem, communication skills, attention span and even educational performance. In essence, protecting gardens is important to improve quality of life, and particularly for people in cities."
RSPB project manager Richard Bashford said: "Gardens are mini nature reserves on our doorsteps and vital habitats for all sorts of wildlife. Many much loved species rely on green spaces like gardens, such as the song thrush and house sparrow, both of which have suffered massive declines in the last few years. House sparrow numbers have plummeted by over 60% and we have lost almost 75% of song thrushes. If more garden space is turned into buildings they will likely decline further and the wonder that children experience on the doorstep will dwindle.
"We hope that the new measures will protect the habitats of species that have become synonymous with English gardens and demonstrate a rich eco system in our own back yards such as frogs, toads and bumble bees."
Mr Clark's failed Private Members Bill during the last Parliament raised the issue of "garden grabbing".
He said the new powers for councils to prevent inappropriate development on back gardens, adding that the reclassification of gardens will not prevent making extensions to their homes. "What it will do is give councils the power to reject planning applications for entirely new dwellings on garden land that are objected to by local people and ruin the character of the area."
Subscribe to Horticulture Week for more news, more in-depth features and more technical and market info.