Garden space inequalities in Cornwall

By Peter Wills and Stephen Horscroft

Gardens are an integral and essential element of the house and its environment – space to play in and grow food: a place where plants can thrive. The Covid pandemic lockdowns highlighted the benefits of garden space but the area of space available for households is unevenly distributed. Some people have spacious gardens, others little or none at all. We can measure this by producing a ratio between the land occupied by a dwelling and the amount of garden space in each plot. If, say, the dwelling on an acre plot takes up 10% of an acre and the garden space takes up 50%, then this results in a ratio of 5:1. Data from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), is available at local neighbourhood level (known as Lower Super Output Areas – LSOAs).

On average the ratio is 5:2, but in ‘Wadebridge, Whitecross, Burlawn and Sladesbridge’ LSOA, the ratio is 5:10, while at the other end of the scale, the figure in ‘Penzance Wharfside and Town’ LSOA it is 5:0.5. It’s quite a difference. Looking at the areas with the lowest ratios indicate they are urban and generally in town centres. Conversely, those with the highest are in rural areas, including small settlements.

There is a link between the share of owner-occupied properties and the ratio between built residential and garden residential land. The implication is that people who rent – either social housing or private – have less garden space than owner-occupiers. This could be a ‘double whammy’ on the quality of life for renters: less space for private leisure, growing food etc but also (coupled with increasing rents and benefit changes) impacting not just physical but also mental health.

Research by the Universities of Exeter and Adelaide has recently looked at private rental factors such as the length of tenancy, building type, costs and rent arrears; and then examined these against a marker of DNA change. Academics concluded that ‘the impact of living in private rental accommodation is related to faster biological ageing – but this could be reversed by measures such as limiting rental rises.’

Another way of looking at the data is to estimate the amount of garden space per dwelling. We find that the average per dwelling is a tenth of an acre (0.04 of a hectare). It ranges from 0.32 acres in ‘Rock, St Minver, Polzeath and Trebetherick’ to 0.1 acres in ‘Penzance Wharfside and Town’. Reducing the density of new developments could make already expensive housing (because of the prevailing perception of Cornwall as a highly desirable environment) even more expensive and certainly prohibitive to many local buyers.

What policy solution is there to this problem? Options could include creating green spaces in or near existing estates or built up town centres and reducing the density of new developments. Certainly, some settlements (such as Carbis Bay) have seen large gardens and even single dwellings disappear in recent years with flats or higher density housing replacing them. Reduced private green space could be used as a justification for planners in view of the beach, woodland and wider countryside (the Penwith Moors) ‘on the doorstep.’ Justification for development over gardens such as in Carbis Bay is also on the basis that the village has shops, a school and good public transport services; even though (for example) most (new) residents may not use public transport. The impact on biodiversity within and between gardens, especially when replaced with hardstanding areas for parking is serious, as is additional footfall for any existing green space – with the environmental damage that can do.

Without additional provision for biodiversity, the remaining parts of Cornwall that have not, as yet, been ‘developed’ (sic) face the challenges of increased footfall (due to population growth and increased tourism). Natural England has alluded to this with particular reference to the Penwith Moors. Despite the additional house building in the Camborne and Redruth areas over the last 10 to 20 years, there has been no provision for a new country park (leaving heavy additional footfall pressure on Tehidy). Existing green space in Cornish ‘urban’ areas needs to be made more accessible and biodiverse to justify the acceptability of less garden space, though of course, private green space is the most accessible for people, even if small. While Cornwall Council’s initiative of a Forest for Cornwall is to be welcomed, one issue arises when this includes encouraging people to plant trees in their own gardens. As welcome as this would be, it is not future-proofed against the actions of future owners – which is why large and connected biodiversity is so important. Private garden space is still important though, as not everyone can easily access the beaches or the moors. The important question of how much of Cornwall can remain ‘undeveloped’ has to be carefully and responsibly considered.

Image: An artist’s impression of the proposed development of 10% affordable homes in Redruth