Friday, 7 October 2011

Brownfield first?

If one ignores all the hot air and pointless posturing in the National Trust’s recent 10 ‘asks’ to the government, the one point with any real substance is the request that the government should restore the preference for developing brown land (or “brownfield sites” as they are usually called nowadays) before greenfield sites are developed.

The form in which this policy was applied by the last government had a disastrous effect on housebuilding. The requirement that 70% of housing development should be on brownfield sites seriously reduced the overall level of house building and contributed to the ever-growing housing shortage.

I have expressed the hope in previous posts that the government will resist this particular demand on the part of the NT and others, but if they are minded to make some concession in that direction, as indications suggest they might, it should certainly not include any percentage target. To do so would be wholly unrealistic, and would simply prolong the current housing shortage.

The plain fact is that in order to build the sort of family homes that are needed, with generous gardens in which children can play safely, a lower density of development is required. The previous government’s policy led to too many little boxes being built on cramped sites, which were totally unsuitable for families. We do not need yet more one-bed and two-bed flats; we need decent family homes.

If ministers are persuaded that there does need to be some reference in the NPPF to the desirability of developing brownfield sites in preference to greenfield, any such statement should be qualified by the proviso that this would apply only where it can be demonstrated by the LPA that there are brownfield sites in the same district which are currently available and are physically capable of being developed with the same number and type of homes that are proposed by the developer, and that it would be commercially viable to do so taking account of the location of the alternative site or sites, the physical state of the land and any contamination and other problems requiring remediation.

In practice, it is likely that a substantial number of brownfield sites will prove on investigation not to be currently available or to be incapable of commercially viable development. It is undesirable and would be damaging to the government’s wider objectives to place too high a hurdle in the way of the development of greenfield sites. The development of such sites is essential and unavoidable if housing need is to be met. Only where a currently available brownfield site is a realistically viable alternative should the development of a greenfield site be resisted by the LPA.

So if the government makes any move to accommodate the views of the National Trust and others on this point, they should be very careful in doing so not to inhibit or delay much-needed housing development.



  1. Where is the evidence that house building has been inhibited by the requirement to develop brownfield sites? Surely the problem is the downturn in the economy and the lack of moneys being provided by the Banks?

  2. Lack of credit has undoubtedly become a problem, both for builders and for potential purchasers. Most housebuilders depend on bank borrowing for working capital, so continuing inability or unwillingness on the part of the banks to lend may well inhibit future development, even in a favourable policy climate. Similarly, the need for increased mortgage deposits from purchasers inhibits their own ability to borrow and therefore to purchase new homes. Thus even a general freeing up of the planning system may not produce the flood of development which NIMBYs and others fear. But we do need a responsive planning system which can deliver a lot more development when market conditions allow. There is a huge unmet housing need in this country, which is only being temporarily held back by the current financial situation.

  3. Spot on Martin.

    Brownfield first has led to investors putting money into such land whilst not themselves intending to release it for development! Relative scarcity of greenfield alternatives plays straight into their hands: brownfield rises in value in response. Hey presto.

    The NT and CPRE et al just don't get it, but the way to bring brownfield into use is to allow much more greenfield.

  4. No mention of the public, who were misled by promises of Localism into believing we would have a meaningful say regarding where development goes, then?

    Developers and the political class have a huge shock coming. It's not only Arab countries having democratic Springs.

    In my, once aquiescent, town we're fighting back, big time. Not just through protests either. Old political allegiances are being jettisoned, those who want our votes must represent our views on getting out of control development, developers and politicians under control.

  5. Harlowite’s comment demonstrates very clearly the political pressures to which members of local planning authorities are all too often subjected, when they should really be approaching the determination of planning applications in an objective and impartial manner. It is the risk that local councillors will feel pressurised by unreasoning NIMBYs into refusing planning permission in respect of controversial planning applications which makes it essential that we retain a robust planning appeals system. We cannot allow much-needed housing development (particularly in the east and south-east) to be prevented or delayed by nonsense of this sort. ‘Localism’ cannot be allowed to prevent essential housing provision, and ministers seem to have accepted that. It is clear that ‘neighbourhood planning’ (under the terms of the Localism Bill) will not be allowed to negative planning policy at the district level or to go against clearly stated ministerial planning policy as stated in the NPPF when it is published in its final form next year.