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Garden grabs

Why UK developers are queuing up to buy your garden

By Zeenat Moosa

, |

Garden grabs

Why UK developers are queuing up to buy your garden

By Zeenat Moosa

, |

3 min read

Lockdown restrictions have undoubtedly made us appreciate our gardens much more. In my mum’s case, her back garden is an actual gold mine – and no, she hasn’t dug it up and found buried treasure.

Densification by garden grabbing

My mum lives in a three-bedroom semidetached house in a leafy suburb of Birmingham, the UK’s second biggest city after London. There’s nothing extraordinary about her house, other than that she has an unusually large garden, especially by UK standards. And so do her neighbours.

Over the last year or so, several property developers have shown interest in buying a section of her garden, along with those of the neighbours on either side. Last year, one developer even wrote to her, alerting her to ‘an opportunity of a lifetime’ due to the size of her garden and its potential. This was followed by a knock at the door from the developer, who was keen to chat to my mum and her neighbours in person.

They were offering approximately £70,000 to purchase half of each garden, which they would then use to build a small estate of town houses, accessed via a private cul-de-sac on the left-hand side of my mum’s house.

The process has become known as garden grabbing, and England has seen a phenomenal rise of it in the last two decades, thanks primarily to relaxed planning laws. Figures show that the percentage of new homes built on previously residential land – including back gardens – has increased by 25% since 1997.

The rationale behind garden grabbing

Why are developers doing this? Well, for a start, land is a rare commodity in the UK, with prices rising by as much as 700% over the last 20 years. In addition, planners consider gardens to be brownfield land (meaning that it has already been developed) rather than greenfield land. As the government has prioritised development of brownfield land, planning permission is much quicker to obtain, which helps to reduce time and cost.

Research shows that houses in the UK are becoming smaller, with 80% of us living on just 10% of the land. This means that developers can get away with packing more houses in a smaller area. They also capitalise on the neighbourhood offerings. My mum’s house is situated near two good schools, is within walking distance of shops and a medical centre, and has great transport links. This, added to the fact that the homes come with all the bells and whistles of a new build, make them very appealing to buyers, who want to live in the area, but do not necessarily want to renovate an old, previously lived-in home.

So how does garden grabbing work?

The value of garden plots directly correlates with the housing market. In deciding which gardens to target, developers will look at which homes will be quicker to get planning permission, as well as how much new homes in the area sell for, and how many units they will be able to build on the available land.

Usually, developers will work backwards from the sale price of the houses they propose to build, deducting all likely costs, as well as their profit, in order to determine a figure that they are prepared to pay for the garden plot.

This means that different developers will offer different amounts for the same piece of land, as each has different ideas on how they would maximise the area.

Is garden grabbing a good thing?

The advantages certainly outweigh the disadvantages. Concern about overcrowding has forced the government to try to introduce laws to confront the problem of garden grabbing. Without proper laws, there is no way of regulating the process, and offering recourse for home owners who have become victims of land scouts eager to make a quick buck without being specific about what will be built or when. The government is keen to revive areas outside of the suburbs, especially in commuter belts on the edge of the big cities.

It is important to remember that, in most cases, developers will be buying more than one garden plot. In my mum’s case, she needed to have buy-in from three neighbours on either side. If even one neighbour is not willing to sell, the whole agreement will fall through.

Other than that, serious developers and home owners can make a big profit. Developers benefit from large profits, and home owners from a tax-free windfall, enabling them to enjoy a lump sum without having to sell their home.


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