Front Gardens on the Frontline

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Will good government policies for cleaner cars have unintended consequences and lead to the loss of more front gardens? Christine Eborall of the Ealing Front Gardens Project explores.

Is the tide turning for front gardens? More people seem to see the value of front gardens being vibrant and alive with plants and green space, instead of being paved over.

Polls also show more people support action to cut traffic and air pollution than to allow rat running. The rise in use of car clubs is another sign that people want mobility without losing control of their street space, and having to park their car on what was their front garden.

Concrete Gardens

Boris Johnson said the loss of front gardens was "a very sad phenomenon. Everybody is familiar with it. Too many front gardens are being built over or being concreted over". He was London Mayor at the time - 2015.

In 2021 his successor, Sadiq Khan, aims to end the loss of front gardens to impermeable hard surfacing with his London Plan. This is the thought-through vision created by the GLA, underpinned by science and research, on how the capital can meet and address big issues such as climate and biodiversity change or pandemics.

The Mayor’s new London Plan may be great for front gardens at risk of being dug up and covered in concrete. For example, the Plan states:

  • the use of impermeable surfacing, including on small surfaces such as front gardens and driveways, should normally be resisted (Policy SI 13D Sustainable drainage)
  • hard standing should be returned to green space when small scale housing development takes place to improve conditions for wildlife (Policy H.2 Small sites, section 4.2.11)

Converting concrete, paving and hard standing back to permeable soils and green space able to absorb water and to help reduce flood risk is a good thing. It is also practical and eminently feasible as a 2017 demonstration project in Greenford shows.

Popular Policies

At a national level, there are two new government policies which set out good environmental intentions but could result in the loss of more front gardens.

The first policy is to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars after 2030. That is a good thing because it will help prompt the shift to zero-emission electric vehicles. The big drawback is it will mean charging electric vehicles overnight, as Boris Johnson, now Prime Minister, wrote on 18 November 2020:

“Imagine Britain when a Green Industrial Revolution has helped to level up the country. You cook breakfast using hydrogen power before getting into your car, having charged it overnight…”

The temptation to create charging points on front gardens is clear. People with new electric cars are likely to do this to take advantage of night-time off-peak electricity tariffs and to avoid having to play musical chairs with any rapid-charging points which may be on a street nearby.

Known risks

The government knows about this risk. In 2018, Ofgem estimated most electric vehicles (87%) were being charged at home. For some time the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles (OZEV, formerly OLEV the Office for Low Emission Vehicles) has been offering grants for householders to install charging points for one or two electric vehicles, currently £350, down from £500 in 2019. All well and good, except to qualify for this grant, the vehicles must be parked off-road and be accessible at all times.

Here’s what OZEV Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme guidance for customers (updated 28 January 2021) says:

“The customer’s property must have designated, private off-street parking. This may be co-located with the property or separate from it. Where the parking is separate, the customer must be able to demonstrate that they have a legal entitlement to the parking space through the provision of land registry title deeds.
“The parking must be suitable for a chargepoint installation (a survey before installation must be conducted by the installer). The parking must be able to permit an eligible vehicle to be charged safely. The customer must be able to access the parking space at all times.
“If you do not have off-street parking, OZEV have a grant scheme for on-street residential charging that can be taken up by your local authority. We are not able to permit arrangements that involve cables being placed over public land, such as pavements, even if it is temporary.”

In most urban and suburban areas this private off-street parking can only be in or on the front garden, if there is one. And because you can charge two vehicles at the same time from a single charge point, it is likely people will want to park and charge more vehicles in their front gardens overnight.

If electric vehicle sales soar, as the government hopes - and as is needed to cut air pollution and particulate emissions - there are two immediate implications for front gardens:

  1. More applications for pavement crossovers (which our research shows almost always leads to front gardens being fully paved or concreted), and
  2. More hard surfacing over front gardens to park vehicles overnight for charging.

The second government policy with direct implications for front gardens is a change to the planning rules. In August 2020 the government announced it will allow up to two extra storeys to be built on existing dwellings.

That is likely to mean more people living in a property, which is likely to see more vehicles being parked in front of a property adding pressure to turn more front gardens into car parks.

Action Stations

Unless the government alters the rules, the loss of even more front gardens to parking and hard surfacing seems inevitable.

At the very least, the government should immediately:

  • Insist only reinforced mesh is used for overnight parking / charging spaces
  • Incentivise restoring paved front gardens to green, while accommodating parking surfaces where necessary.

In the medium term, when fast on-street charging is widespread and car batteries are more efficient, the government should incentivise the restoration or creation of front gardens as a priority over the creation of charging points.

Protected and restored front gardens have benefits beyond having parking charge points for electric vehicles, even with permeable surfaces. Vehicles will be able to be charged in plenty of locations but front gardens lost to hard surfacing is a lasting if not permanent loss.