Stoneygate Gardencheck

Gardencheck is a special type of Placecheck for assessing the impact of a street’s front gardens.
Email for details of how to do your own, at no cost.

From the Stoneygate (Leicester) Conservation Area Society Newsletter
We can all admire a proud homeowner’s plan to improve the appearance of his or her property but as we all know, there are improvements and… there are improvements. Before the introduction of the Stoneygate Conservation Area Article 4 Direction in 2007 certain types of ‘minor’ work to private homes fell into the category of ‘permitted development’, which meant that they could be carried out without the need to submit a planning application. Timber front doors and windows, for instance, could be replaced with uPVC equivalents. Front boundary walls and gates could be removed and front gardens replaced by a car parking area of block paving, slabs or tarmac. These changes now require permission from the planning department.

Some people may value off-street parking more than a front garden, but history shows us that the results don’t usually enhance the conservation area. Many of the frontages in Stoneygate that were hard-landscaped before Article 4 have not only had a seriously negative visual impact; they have also brought other problems. Impermeable surfaces have caused greater rainwater runoff to nearby street drains, increasing the risk of flooding and raising temperatures.

The wholesale removal of trees, shrubs, lawns and flower borders has reduced biodiversity and air-quality, creating dead zones. In the worst-affected areas there has been an incremental transformation of once-attractive and leafy streets into a landscape of increasing starkness and monotony.

In its 2014 Core Planning Strategy, Leicester City Council made a commitment to use its management powers to improve the situation. It acknowledged the contribution that Leicester’s conservation areas make to the city’s unique character and recognised their importance in achieving its long-term strategic goals. One of these is to ‘create beautiful places’ and promote ‘greenness’. Another is to reduce car use.

Sacrificing front gardens to satisfy a homeowner’s desire for more off-street parking space is counterproductive in both cases. As the city council prepares to launch its new local plan, we hope that the commitment will be maintained. Leicester can now offer a diverse range of housing, and buyers for whom a low-maintenance lifestyle and car parking are priorities might reasonably be expected to purchase a flat. If they choose instead to buy a family home with a front garden, they should not expect the council to compromise its commitment to the city’s conservation areas so that they can transform it into what is really a two- or three-storey apartment complex plus car park.

The number of urban front gardens resurfaced with hard landscaping is a nationwide problem which it is growing at an alarming rate. The Royal Horticultural Society has launched an excellent new campaign to raise awareness of the issue. The RHS’s campaign isn’t fanatically anti-car; it simply aims ‘to promote a more balanced approach which recognises the importance of neighbourhood amenity and ecological and other considerations’. We think this is a cause worth supporting.

While the 2007 Article 4 Direction has helped reduce the problem of paved-over front gardens in the Stoneygate Conservation Area, there is still a legacy of horrors (mainly created in the 80s and 90s) that predates this. We are keen to begin our own local campaign which encourages residents to green some of them.

The first step is to accurately assess the scale of the problem in Stoneygate and, to this end, we have made contact with urban design expert Rob Cowan, who has devised a survey tool called Gardencheck, designed to help do exactly that. Gardencheck has been piloted in London and Rob would like to extend it to areas outside the capital.

Teams of SCAS volunteers took to the streets with clipboards and pens. Two hours later we had made significant inroads into the project, which attracted considerable media attention. As well as being accompanied by a reporter and cameraman from BBC East Midlands, we were interviewed by both BBC Radio Leicester and Radio 5 Live. The data on the 1,000 properties is providing an evidence base for further action, including, we hope, further media coverage and a series of articles in local and national heritage journals.

Email for details of how to carry out a Gardencheck, at no cost.