Disappearing back gardens       Home Page

Going, going, gone – the disappearing back gardens
by Delora Jones (originally printed in the Autumn 2015 edition of the Burton Civic Society newsletter)

Nb:  More photos of this extension-filled back garden, which did not appear in the BCS newsletter, follow this article.

In the last few years, some house extensions have been built, extensions that take up virtually the whole of their back gardens, dominate the view from others’ back gardens, and block light to neighbours’ homes and back gardens.

My office window looks out on my small back garden and the gardens beyond — some greenery and peace in this densely-populated neighbourhood. But looking out one day, I was startled to see an extension being built, the height and length of which dwarfed all other extensions. Surely this must exceed the allowed limits – or did it?

A friend lives next door to this extension (pictured, view taken from my home). I rang him and learned he and his wife had moved out. In addition to the enormous light-blocking extension being erected next door, the noise from the builders, and the detritus from the builders’ work that fell into their back garden and onto their doors, drove them to use what savings they had, to move out of their home of 20 years.

What could be done? I’d heard that structures have, in the past, been taken down when they’d exceeded planning limits, and surely something this enormous is beyond the accepted limits – or is it?

To get to the bottom of this, I rang and emailed the Planning Dept; Andrew Griffiths, MP; and the Burton Mail. My friend and I attended Anglesey Parish Council meetings to raise this issue; I leafletted the neighbourhood; and contacted others for advice. Here’s what I’ve learnt:

I learned there is a ‘larger home extension’ scheme (link below). The first thing listed under this scheme is: No more than half the area of land around the "original house"* would be covered by additions or other buildings. But I further learned from the Planning Department that this scheme doesn’t apply to the extension pictured above (its 1st-floor extension exceeds the height limits of this scheme); here’s what does apply[1]:
Planning applications in East Staffordshire are assessed against the Development Plan for the area, the East Staffordshire Design guide and the National Planning Policy Framework primarily and Neighbourhood Plans. The key saved Policy from the Local Plan is H6 regarding residential development including house extensions. There is nothing regarding the amount of ground coverage. [my bolding] Instead the requirements are more general, requiring adequate private amenity space for dwellings.’ [1] [Nb: I don’t know what is meant by ‘saved Policy’; much of the language used in connection with planning I found to obfuscate rather than communicate.]

So, no criteria addressing ground cover. But why isn’t there a ground-cover restriction in all cases?

Also, another friend (a former councillor) informed me we have no legal ‘right to light’! Did you know that? (link below)

And as regards amenities, which were referred to, what rights have we? (‘Amenities’, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, means pleasantness [of place, etc.].) In the planning conditions for this extension, it said the development must be carried out in accordance with certain restrictions. Two reasons given for these restrictions were to ‘ensure the development will not adversely affect the appearance of the locality’ nor ‘the amenities of neighbouring properties’. But their restrictions did not restrict sufficiently so what we are left with is this: an enormous extension, dominating our patchwork of small back gardens, and as for the amenities of neighbouring properties, I’ll let my friend speak:

‘ . . . it's even more depressing if you have the prospect of living next door to one of these so called acceptable "improvements". All I can say is that I gravely doubt if anyone really knows
 . . . what it would be like, if they had to live their lives in sight of one! Everything now seems to be a matter of interpretation of the relaxed rules, and if you are in the local planning department your word becomes law.

So despite the restrictions, this enormous extension has adversely affected the appearance of the locality, and clearly my friend’s amenities have been deeply affected. The rules for back garden extensions have been relaxed to a point of virtually no restrictions at all, and this needs correcting.

The planning criteria that all local planning departments must abide by is generated by central government – not locally, so I asked to meet with our MP but he said (in an email) that this issue was to do with the planning department and he wasn’t sure there was much he could do to assist. But Central Government created this planning criteria. So to the press.

A meeting with a reporter from the Burton Mail was arranged but she had to postpone; however, she sent out a photographer who took photos. The next day she rang to say she couldn’t do this story, that it was a national issue and not a local one (!); she suggested we contact a national paper. Time was when the national press picked up stories from the local press – has this changed? (We requested, but were not given, any of the photos.)

We also attended a couple of Parish Council meetings, but learned that this is not the sort of issue over which they have any influence, but they did provide me with a copy of their draft Neighbourhood Development Plan (ND Plan):

In Anglesey Ward ‘s ND Plan, it says it will support development proposals which seek to provide
‘. . . – 3- and 4-bedroomed family homes with minimum of 70sqm of garden space
[bolding is mine]; my friend whose property is next-door to this extension reckons at best there’s less than 20 sq. feet – that’s feet! — of next door’s back garden that’s not been built on. Supporting proposals that meet the criteria isn’t the same as preventing those that don’t.

The Anglesey ND Plan also seeks to avoid repetition of cramped backland developments and overbearing extensions which can be found in the parish. . . .’ [bolding is mine] The planning officer, in her email to me, listed Neighbourhood Plans as part of the mix that steers their planning decisions. So if our current ND Plan had been in place when this extension was being built (it was in draft form at the time), would that have been enough to have prevented this extension being approved? Do Neighbourhood Plans have any teeth? What weight would the ND Plan have in that mix? These are important questions.

So where are we now? We’re left staring at a massive extension which, thankfully, isn’t immediately next door to me right now — though sadly, for my friend, it is but which could easily rise up next door to any of us, as there are no regulations to prevent similar extensions so absurdly out of scale to their surroundings being built on either side — or both sides — of our back gardens.

Where do we go from here? I don’t know. My efforts, to date, have made no progress that I can see. Perhaps someone at the Civic Voice (formerly Civic Trust) would be interested to take this issue forward, and help the government to rein in the rules governing house extensions/outbuildings to make them more sensible, and fairer to the neighbourhood, eg:

Ground cover: restrict ground cover to no more than 50% of the back garden;

Right to light: ensure all neighbours have a right to light;

Make the act of objecting/not objecting an action, not the lack of action: Currently, the planning department send letters to only immediate neighbours, and addressed to ‘occupier’, to tell them a neighbour has applied for planning permission. They then have 21 days to reply, and ‘no reply’ is interpreted as ‘no objection’. So if they’re away or in hospital when this letter arrives — or they mistake it for a letter of adverts — they’ll not have replied, and their inaction will be interpreted as not objecting. And this is the problem. No action signals nothing other than no action. To signal that someone objects, or doesn’t object, should require an active move. These letters should have ‘I object’/’I don’t object’ tick boxes so the neighbour’s reaction to this information is clear and beyond doubt. The current system shows nothing more than that letters to ‘Occupier’ were dropped through a few letterboxes.

Height and length/depth restrictions: Specifying restrictions in metres for height and length would restrict extensions in very large gardens, and might permit extensions too big for small back gardens, so a set-measured metre restriction is not the answer. We must ensure that any extension built in future is one that will sit comfortably in its surroundings, and not dominate the view from other back gardens, and not block light to neighbouring homes and gardens. The extension pictured above does not meet any of these three criteria. Can regulations be worked out whereby this sort of common sense plays a part? Perhaps be jointly reviewed by the Parish Council, Planning Dept and local Civic Society? I don’t know the answer to this one but clearly the current restrictions are by far, much too loose for the small, densely packed back gardens in Anglesey Ward.

(*meaning the house as it was first built or as it stood on 1 July 1948)

related links:

right to light: http://www.planning-applications.co.uk/righttolight.htm

increases to the size limits for the ‘larger home extension’ scheme: http://www.planningportal.gov.uk/permission/commonprojects/extensions/


view from neighbour's kitchen window view from neighbour's 1st-floor window.
This shows there is not much drainable garden space remaining, as there is also a building, built a few years previously, at the end of the back garden.
view from end of neighbour's back garden view from near the end of neighbour's back garden
view from house-end of neighbour's back garden