Leafy neighbourhoods are being threatened because gardens are disappearing under new housing as a result of "damaging" Government policies, MPs and campaigners yesterday warned. Alnwick, Castle Morpeth and Teesdale are among the 15 worst-hit areas in England for "garden grabbing", it has been claimed.
And hotspots include Barnard Castle and Darras Hall - a favourite location for footballers - with homes even being pulled down to make way for two or three properties on the same site.
Hexham MP Peter Atkinson, who has analysed official figures, warned areas were being overdeveloped while the need for more affordable housing was not being addressed.
He claimed ministers had defined gardens as previously developed brownfield land available for housing while imposing tight restrictions elsewhere.
Some 81% of new homes in Alnwick were built on previously residential land, while the figure was 65% in Castle Morpeth and 67% in Teesdale in 2005 - which was largely on gardens, according to the Tory MP.
The overall Northumberland figure was 26% in 2005 compared to 8% in County Durham, 14% in Cleveland and 4% in Tyne and Wear. The North-East total was 9%.
"It is not the right place to solve the problem," Mr Atkinson added. "We don't solve the problem by damaging the environment of the leafy suburbs. What we must try to do is make more space in sensible areas. We need to permit local councillors to make decisions where they can put new houses which don't cause problems or destroy the local environment."
He also said councils risked big legal bills if they rejected "garden-grabbing" homes with developers likely to win on appeal.
Berwick MP Alan Beith said he had supported moves to end the "wrong" definition of gardens as brownfield sites but warned the real issue was restrictions contained in a Government-amended planning blueprint for the region.
"There is suitable land and buildings for conversion in Northumberland and an urgent need for social and private housing. The restriction will force prices up and building houses in gardens is not the solution," said the Liberal Democrat MP.
Countryside Alliance Northern director Richard Dodd said the situation was "massively" damaging and had arisen because of planning rules, with developers forced to search for any available land.
"We are the most sparsely populated county, Northumberland, yet we have a shortage of land to build on. There isn't a shortage of land, there is a shortage of will," added Mr Dodd.
He also said new properties sold for up to £700,000, forcing locals to live in urban areas and return for lower-paid jobs while wealthy commuters drove to city jobs from their country homes.
The Department for Communities and Local Government - which is responsible for planning - said it had strengthened councils' powers to turn down inappropriate garden developments. A spokesman said councils could set local policies to protect gardens and separate them from wider brownfield development targets. He insisted gardens had only ever accounted for a small amount of redevelopment and often involved conversion of existing houses or rebuilding on the footprint of old buildings.
A Castle Morpeth council spokesman said every application was judged on its own merits and subject to tough rules.
"They must be within settlement boundaries and, in areas including Darras Hall with larger plots which are divided, both sites must remain at least a quarter of an acre in size," he said. "Often such applications are rejected, and we would dispute any claim that this kind of development is destroying neighbourhoods."
The spokesman also said subdivision was supported by many people as shown by the number of applications over 30 years, although the situation was under review.
Alnwick District Council said the proportion of new homes built in gardens in its area was considerably less than the figures suggested.