Peter Southgate: On Loss of Front Gardens

Peter's remarks in the Council Debate on 16 September 2009 on a Labour motion asking for residents' payments for installation of dropped kerbs to be spread over 3 stages, to ease the financial burden.

‘We will enable local people to fulfil their ambition by providing educational opportunity and good value services in a safe and sustainable suburb.’

Not my words, but taken from our mission statement, the vision for this council. And what could be more important to the sustainability of this suburb than its gardens, particularly its front gardens. Front gardens are vital to sustainability in two senses; in the environmental sense, because they provide a natural soak away and help to prevent flooding. We are all aware of the statistics on how many football pitch equivalents have been lost in London due to the paving over of front gardens, and we are also aware that Merton is more exposed to flood risk than most other London boroughs.

And sustainability in terms of a sense of place; let me quote again, this time from our draft Core Strategy:

‘1930s suburbia characterises large parts of the south and east of Merton: lower density semi detached houses or short terraces with gardens, in tree lined roads with wide grass verges.’

You don’t have to be John Betjeman to find that quite an appealing description, defining a sense of place that we want to preserve and safeguard. Yet every crossover created is a front garden lost and a grass verge destroyed, it is an attack on that sense of place. To borrow from the language of the economists, front gardens are a public good or a positive externality; they contribute to the public realm at no cost to the public purse. What does a concrete space stuffed with 3 or 4 cars contribute to the public realm?

We’re probably all aware of the well kept front gardens that make a positive contribution to our wards, if only because they’re becoming rarer still. Passing this motion would accelerate their loss.

It has been suggested that phasing the payment for a crossover would benefit poorer householders who cannot afford £750 as a lump sum. Bear in mind it would also benefit the absentee buy-to-let landlords who are buying family homes in Merton, splitting them into two cramped flats with or without the benefit of planning permission, and then concreting over the front garden to create the off street parking that can command a higher rent. Do we want to make life easier for these people? And ask yourself also how easy it’s going to be to collect those second and third payments once the crossover has been built.

If we want to ease the impact of the recession on our residents, let’s concentrate on those who really need help, perhaps those who have lost their jobs and are struggling to pay their council tax. They would benefit from having the 10 monthly instalments increased to 12 lower value instalments, for example. If someone has found the £3000 needed to have their front garden paved over, I find it hard to believe they cannot afford the cross over fee as a lump sum.

I realise that in opposing the spread of crossovers I am probably adopting a somewhat Canute – like stance, but please let’s not do anything to hasten the loss of our dwindling supply of front gardens.