Bursting at the seams

Action must to be taken to stop 'garden grabbing' new homes as Berkhamsted is bursting at its seams, an academic has warned.

With parking at crisis point, trains jam-packed with commuters every day and oversubscribed schools, former Cambridge lecturer and economist, Laurence Handy, has said something must be done.

Mr Handy, who has lived in the town for 30 years, said Berkhamsted is in danger of becoming an 'under resourced and overcrowded ghetto' as a result of garden infilling.

In a document (see below) he said between 2001 to 2006, 58 homes were built in Berkhamsted's back gardens and with 150 homes well under way at Stag Lane and proposals for 50 at New Lodge, the town's infrastructure cannot cope.

Mr Handy began writing the paper several months ago but was further spurred on after discovering an application for 12 houses at The Pines, which backs on to his house.

The solution, he argues, is for the people of Berkhamsted to educate themselves on the long and often complicated planning processes.

Also concerned about garden infill is Dacorum Borough Council, which wants greater power to decide housing density and for gardens to be reclassified as greenfield as opposed to brownfield.

Berkhamsted councillor and Dacorum's head of regeneration and planning, Cllr Ian Reay, wrote to local government minister John Healey. In his letter he said: "We feel that our market towns and villages are facing an unprecedented threat to their character and identity."

What do you think? CLICK HERE to leave your comments.

Alternatively email louisa.felton@hemelgazette.co.uk

Below is Mr Handy's paper in full.


I have written this paper as a resident of Berkhamsted who, like many others, is genuinely concerned about what is happening to our town. I have lived in "Berko," as it is affectionately called, for 30 years and known the town for over 50. I am not against change - indeed, when I first moved here it was difficult to get a cup of coffee or tea in the town and there were many unsightly areas which have since been developed and improved upon. Certainly there were insufficient amenities to warrant a copy of "Berkhamsted Living". But when is enough, enough?

The recent history of Berkhamsted is characterised by the accelerating urbanisation of the town. In the 1960s the landscape was changed dramatically with the building of the Ashlyns, Westfield and Durrants Estates together with the development of Bridgewater Road and South Park Gardens. In the 70s and 80s these developments were followed by the Chiltern Park Estate which virtually eliminated green land between Berkhamsted and Northchurch and Hunters Oak. These developments took the population of Berkhamsted from 10,785 in 1951 to 15,701 in 1991 - a 45% increase over 40 years. Although substantial these figures are dwarfed by the relentless pace of development since then. Based on a count of 7950 dwellings the current population of Berkhamsted is now 19000 - an increase of 21% over 16 years. Put another way, whereas the population was growing at the rate of 122 people per annum between 1951 and 1991 this accelerated to 206 per annum between 1991 and 2008 and if we take the last seven to 357 per annum.

Shortly we will have 150 new houses in Stag Lane. In addition there have been three substantial flat and elderly persons developments along the high street constituting a further 100 units or so effectively turning the main Road from Berkhamsted to Northchurch into a corridor of high rise developments. These developments alone will probably increase the population by 600 people in one year. At the other end of town there is a plan to build 50 houses at New Lodge which will come on stream in the next two or three years.

However dramatic these statistics are they mask the very important change in the way development has occurred of late. In an attempt, wisely or not, to protect the Green Belt much of the more recent development has been on vacant areas within the town commonly referred to as "Brownfield Sites" of which the old Welcome site was a prime example as is Stag Lane. As the release of further sites for development has occurred more and more of the open spaces which are in short supply in Berkhamsted, have been built on. The upshot is that over my time here Berkhamsted has become a sprawling urban dormitory which on a day to day basis bears more resemblance to "a building site on a car park" than it does to an "historic market town set in beautiful countryside" as it is currently advertised" .And what of the future - by all accounts the situation can only get worse.

The present requirement of the Governments Regional Spatial Strategy for the Eastern Region is that Dacorum Borough Council must find room for 6,500 dwellings between 2001 and 2021. On this basis Dacorum seemed assured that they could find the land necessary without encroaching on the Green Belt. But things look as though they are going to change with a new Spatial Strategy for the Eastern Region to be published soon. Most importantly the obligation on Dacorum is anticipated to nearly double to 12,000 dwellings over the same period. Much of this development is likely to be focussed around Hemel Hempstead and in particular between Hemel and St.Albans but one should not assume that Berkhamsted will be immune from the implications of these raised obligations. And this time around Dacorum expects to be told that it will have to give up some of the Green Belt to reach its targets. So much then for "planned development" which, by itself, will result in further urbanisation in our town and surrounding areas?

But what about development that is unplanned? By "unplanned" I mean small scale housing construction of an ad hoc nature which in development jargon is called "windfall "an element of which is currently estimated in local plans. This type of development is at best unpredictable - its occurrence relies on as yet unforeseen events such as the closure of a factory or warehouse which would release more Brownfield land for Development. However, new Government rules will mean that windfalls cannot be taken into account when assessing the achievement of housing targets. In other words such targets will become minima. Put another way windfalls will now be in addition to these minimum targets and thus not restricted by them as was the case previously. This will mean that in addition to increased targets the scale of actual development will become even more uncontrollable and thus more unpredictable.

Berkhamsted is renowned for having a shortage of open green spaces and trees for a town of its size. Ashridge of course is rich in wildlife but when it comes to Berkhamsted itself much of the open space such as it had has now been built upon. As a consequence gardens now provide the main source of green space for recreation, Co2 absorption and wildlife sanctuary. Unfortunately, while there is a massive difference between a disused industrial site and a garden, gardens too are included under the designation of Brownfield Sites.

And much of this space is fast disappearing and even more is under severe threat;

first by residents converting their front gardens into parking space and second by residents with larger gardens selling their houses or gardens to make space for yet more houses An activity appropriately named Garden Grabbing. Bill boards abound from developers stating that "more land is required" (for development). Gravel Path has done its bit for garden grabbing. How long will it be before Bridgewater Road takes on the semblance of our many terraced thoroughfares? Already there have been attempts to build in the gardens of Ellesmere Road. Who will be next? As Brownfield space becomes increasingly scarce it is obvious that a large part of this now even more unrestrained windfall allowance will be dependent on the whims of householders and developers out to make a quick buck.- a frightening thought.

The number of houses built in gardens across the borough of Dacorum in 2005-6 was 78 and in 2006-7 it was 101 - an increase of over 25 per cent. Between 2001 and 2006 58 houses were built in gardens in Berkhamsted (approximately 10 a year).

But if all this were not bad enough the threat to the open spaces and the quality of life within towns such as Berkhamsted does not stop there. In addition a Government statement known as PPS3 dated November 2006, sets out new guidelines for delivering the Government's housing objectives. One of the most devastating and controversial aspects of that Planning Policy statement is new national minima for housing density which if taken literally would increase the density of housing well above that recommended by many local authorities for some areas of which Dacorum and Berkhamsted, is a particular case in point.

Dacorum, to its credit, has its local plan which attempts to preserve the differing characters of the areas across Dacorum. In the case of Berkhamsted the plan sets out recommended and varied housing densities for identified areas of Berkhamsted. For example, as in most towns the recommended density for a location in the town centre might be higher than that for the more rural areas characterised by larger houses with gardens.

But, if the Government guidelines were to be taken literally, which they should not be given the accompanying qualifications set out in PPS3, there is not one area of Berkhamsted which has a locally recognised density which gets near the target recommended by the new guidelines. In many instances it would at least double the current housing density and if applied across the board could even quadruple it in some areas This of course is a developers dream and particularly so when it comes to garden grabbing where they would much prefer to rely on the Governments expressed desire for higher density figures especially on small plots - rather than those recommended by the Borough- and can afford costly Inquiries by the Planning Inspectorate to challenge local decisions. This has put local planners under enormous strain and the developers know it.

Another pernicious aspect of the national policy is the inversion of guidelines on parking provision which gives rise to less off road provision than was previously the case. This would inevitably increase the incidence of on road parking in already congested roads and particularly so with many garden developments in Berkhamsted which back on to narrow roads and lanes where much of the garden grabbing is taking place let alone the High Street.

Ah! I can hear the developers and their agents saying "by developing your town and infilling your gardens with high density developments we are protecting the Green Belt". This is rubbish! Given the anticipated Regional Plan targets and the treatment of windfall as additional to these targets we will inevitably lose part of the Green Belt as Dacorum is anticipating already and our gardens. There is no way that garden infilling will save the Green Belt in Dacorum. From my conversations this point is clearly not appreciated by people who still regard garden infilling as a way of protecting the Green Belt from development. Much needs to be done to re-educate the community on this important issue and those who can inform this debate should see it as a priority. In the meantime, under current plans and legislation, those of us who live in towns such as Berkhamsted face the prospect of living in an overcrowded ghetto which is increasingly under resourced.

For example, how can the education authorities cater for ad hoc garden developments? Sure the authority has a contingency for development which is off plan so to speak. But long term plans, which are needed for new school buildings are based on 10 yearly censuses which at the pace of development described here are likely to be hopelessly out of date. In the short term educational needs are based on the number of children registered with primary health trusts. In this case whatever the figure arrived at is bound to be unpredictable and necessitate knee jerk emergency actions as we have witnessed of late with the proposal - since withdrawn - to transport primary school children from Berkhamsted to Hemel. If the spate of garden grabbing continues we can only expect this situation to get worse,

This year the Budget for Hertfordshire and Dacorum alike will increase by 2 per cent which does not even cover inflation. The remainder necessary will have to be met out of Council tax or cost savings while our services deteriorate further.

No one needs to be reminded about the state of our roads which are being destroyed by the increased volume of traffic and laden building lorries in particular. Speed bumps are obsolete in most parts of Berkhamsted as the rutted roads already serve the same purpose. If you are lucky enough to see the sign that "Hertfordshire Highways is working to improve our roads" you can rest assured that the surface will be just as bad in a few months time. Parking is a problem everywhere and on road parking has reduced most of our roads to single track not helped of course by the volume of traffic now entering the town for work, the railway, shopping and schools. Most of the new builds in the high street will probably have at least two cars apiece which will spew out into the main road to join the ever increasing log jam which pollutes the whole town and was supposed to be alleviated by the by-pass. Then there are the drains which are continuously blocked and unable to cope with the water which flows over an increasing volume of concrete and a sewage system which, unable to cope with current volumes, regularly overflows in Mill Lane. Just what will it be like in 2021 under current housing legislation and inadequate funding?

While I am all for improving local government efficiency even I appreciate that you cannot get a quart out of an ever shrinking pint pot.

Writing in the spring edition of Horizons- News from Hertfordshire County Council - Robert Gordon, the new leader of the County Council, writes that he wants a fair deal for Hertfordshire. He points out that the average Herts resident pays over 11000 a year to the Government in personal taxes but our public services get less than 7000 back. 4 billion is taken away from Hertfordshire each year. Yet, as he says, the strain on public services will continue to increase year on year and our quality of life will decline not least because of the Governments plans for 82,500 new homes by 2021.

If Hertfordshire residents are being systematically robbed it is quite likely that Berkhamsted residents, who have a relatively high per capita income compared with other areas of Hertfordshire, are being robbed even more and the price for that theft is all too apparent.

One of the problems I find when listening to people moaning about the issues outlined above is that they are often unfamiliar with the level of Government that is responsible for what or how an increasingly centralised system of government has curtailed the powers of local officials. The fact is that our local democracy is being destroyed and we are suffering the consequences.

Mr Gordon states that he wants "to build a coalition of those who share his high aspirations for our county………and maximise our influence on the decisions others make but which affect our lives." By others I take it he means Central Government.

I would suggest that what is happening to Berkhamsted is a microcosm of the broader issues to which Mr Gordon refers and as such I feel the community of Berkhamsted should respond positively to Mr Gordon's suggestion and consider constructive action to protect our town and heritage against the creeping disease of housing legislation which is fast ruining our town - we may not have many tractors, of the conventional sort at least, and the burning of tyres might be illegal, but I do feel sometimes that we should take a leaf out of the French book and at least do something rather than just moan as is too often the case.

For example, anyone who read the Berkhamsted and Tring Gazette of January 23rd may have read of a motion passed by Dacorum Borough Council calling on the Government to change the brown field designation of gardens and to amend planning laws so local authorities can decide housing densities. Unless you have a garden to sell I feel most people would applaud such action and we should demonstrate our support for this motion by, for example, writing to our MPs and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

However, I feel that the issues discussed here are too enormous and important to be tackled by local politicians alone - much wider cross party support is required from individuals and groups at both local and national levels who share the same broad objectives be they local government, other public services, the voluntary and charitable sectors, community interest, commercial or otherwise. The National Trust and The Woodlands Trust for example are attempting to buy land to save it from development and the various wildlife foundations are also concerned by the loss of green space. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) is also against building in gardens because of the loss of mature trees etc.

For me what is happening in Berkhamsted can no longer be just a party political issue at local level although the influence that local politicians and Councils bring to bear is clearly important. I have received enormous support in the past from Councillors of various political hues all of whom have had the interests of the town at heart but know the limitations to their influence. It is about Berkhamsted and the quality of life of the people who live here. My hope would be that people who are apathetic to voting in local elections because of a more general disillusionment with party politics or who do vote but do so along party lines rather than the attributes of an individual might stand up and be counted on specific issues like garden grabbing and housing density which ultimately affect everyone.

I am reminded here of one local councillor on the planning group who, totally dedicated to his social responsibility to Berkhamsted, spent most evenings walking the streets of the town to assess planning applications, gave enormous assistance to those who needed help, was an expert on all aspects of planning but whom, despite all this, was not re-elected because his party was out of favour at the time. This is too big an issue for it to be left to party politics and shouldered by a few elected officials who, however dutiful and generous with their time, are unpaid, have full time jobs in addition to their council work, and face increasing demands on their time.

At a very practical local level I would judge from the large number of planning applications and pending Inquiries in the pipeline that there are several local action groups and individuals fighting specific developments in their vicinity who, like me, are appalled at the consequences of overdevelopment which can only get worse. I expect also that with or without professional advice these groups and individuals have all climbed very steep and possibly lonely and painful learning curves in their attempts to stop overdevelopment and many more may have given up.

Again I am especially conscious of the enormous pressure put on anyone who receives notice of a planning application through their letter box. It invariably arrives at the most inconvenient time - school holidays when a lot of people are away or even worse at Christmas or the New Year along with the income tax demand. Sometimes you wonder if it is not planned that way.

You are given three or four weeks to reply by the deadline and are told that you can look at the plans at the Town Council or Dacorum Offices or log on to the Dacorum website. If you find time to do so you may not know how to read the plans and either do not have, or cannot use, an Architects ruler to get real and accurate measurements from them. You know you object to the development but are totally unfamiliar with the relevant planning rules and guidelines upon which your objections should be based. These of course are available in two large volumes at the Council offices and the library. They are also available on line but this is not much help if you do not have a computer.

And even if you do log on to the web site you had better have your reading glasses and magnifier available. You should also forget about downloading the information as plans have copyright restrictions on them. As time runs out and you do not know any better, you eventually write a letter which says that the development represents pure greed and should be rejected. Although this might be true it is of course inadmissible as greed is not one of the planning criteria against which your objection is going to be considered.

Having failed to get your point across, you now wait for your local Council to consider the case. If you are sensible you may have got in touch with a local ward councillor for advice. If you are wealthy you may have paid a planning consultant to write the letter for you - they do not come cheap. You may not appreciate however that the Town Council might be wholly against the development but can only recommend refusal or acceptance to the Borough Council where the development is referred to the case officer for refusal or rejection.

If it is recommended it could go before the Development Control Committee at Dacorum which may agree or disagree with the case officer. You can speak at this meeting but only for three minutes. It can be rather daunting for the average person to do this. Even if the case officer or Development Control rejects the development for good planning reasons your celebratory drink may have been misplaced as the developer can appeal hoping that the planning inspector will overrule the Borough Council at an Inquiry.

You will then get another letter with equally good timing as the first one to say that you again have four weeks to respond to the Inspectorate if you wish to add anything to your previous objections which have been recorded already. While all this is going on you still have to get the kids to school (if you can find one), cook the meals, deal with the income tax, Oh…… and go to work!

Needless to say you will not be told of the date of the Inquiry at this stage and when you are told you had better make hasty arrangements for the kids and work if you wish to attend. If you do go you had better go by bus because you know you will not be able to park a car and, if you can, you will probably get a parking ticket for overstaying your allotted time. Obviously you should allow yourself plenty of time in case you get stuck in the rush hour traffic, although you might be lucky if the Inspector is stuck in it as well or has gone to the wrong venue.

The pressure on you throughout this process is immense and all the time you are worried sick about the 10metre wall that might be going up next to your property or the extension that you know will block your light. . You certainly don't think about taking a holiday while all this is going on because your job is to respond to deadlines set by other people.

Then, when you have had a nervous breakdown you learn that the Government has introduced new planning guidelines to make it easier for developers to grab the next door garden and put the three houses there when you know in your heart it could take one at the most and preferably none at all. In the meantime, of course the developer can submit new applications to develop the site to keep everyone busy while you are trying to get a removal van to leave the country; that is if you haven't had a heart attack in the meantime. Is it surprising that property developers are having a field (or should I say garden) day and that a lot of people just give up. This account might seem funny but I can assure you that it is not.

Surely it is time that those of us who care get together to lend support to each other and our officials who, from my experience, are just as concerned as many of us are about what is happening to Berkhamsted. I can hear already people thinking "well it won't affect me so why bother". The fact is that it might sooner than you think given the money to be made and the concerted targeting of developers keen to buy space. How many people have received letters from people interested in buying their property where the response address is a PO Box or, unbeknown to them, the writer is a member of a property developer's family or a developer themselves. How often do helicopters go overhead and how many of them are surveying gardens ripe for development? I would urge everyone to look around them and be aware of what is happening in their area and what might happen in the future. Just how many more lungs will disappear?

Some people will make short term gains from this and will be pleased to realise an asset particularly if they hate gardening or want to retire to Spain. But while this is going on all of us have to live with the consequences. Whatever one thinks about the French they at least make their point heard - lethargy could condemn us to living in a ghetto!

Wake up Berkhamsted!

Laurence Handy