Brownfield land is the answer to the housing crisis. Here’s how we can build on it

Our green and pleasant land. Image: Getty.

At the start of last week prime minister David Cameron pledged in a speech to build 200,000 starter homes on brownfield land. This pledge was the latest policy announcement aimed at refocusing development on brownfield, encouraging urban regeneration, and protecting green spaces.

The extent to which brownfield land can provide solutions to the housing crisis is regularly debated. Some organisations who propose further development on greenfield and Green Belt argue that brownfield land is a finite resource that can only meet a fraction of housing need. Others, like the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), believe that we have good reason to put brownfield first. A recent CPRE report with the University of the West of England showed that suitable brownfield land can support at least a million new homes; it also showed that the supply of brownfield sites is renewable, with new sites replacing those that are redeveloped.  

Such positive intent from Whitehall is therefore welcome – but there remains an issue of quality within these grand quantity targets. Homes built under previous target-driven policies for brownfield have often lacked a mix of housing responsive to the aspirations of residents and the needs of local people, and have often been poor quality small units aimed at investment purchasers rather than built as homes.

To ensure that new homes on brownfield are those that communities need, we must look to implement new policies to support development.

A good starting point would be measures to encourage brownfield remediation. Despite a “polluter-pays” principle, the most common method of remediating contaminated brownfield land is as part of a development project; the only government assistance provided is corporation tax relief on certain costs involved. This can leave the developer paying a crippling 70 per cent of remediation costs – a burden severe enough to make many sites unviable.

To find a new approach we can look to the US for a precedent. Some states offer 100 per cent taxation relief via credits on all brownfield remediation costs, so long as a development meets certain social goals in terms of dwelling and use mix. A similar policy here would incentivise higher quality building on brownfield land.

The public sector, meanwhile, needs to play a greater role in making brownfield land available for development. It has been estimated that certain central government bodies own over 8,000 hectares of land in urban areas, with local authorities and other public bodies also likely to be large landowners. Government could therefore require public sector bodies to register and map their landholdings, assess whether they are suitable for development (particularly if they are small-scale, infill sites that can be developed speedily by small house builders), and work with developers and housing associations to deliver the housing types that are most required by communities.

Finally, we should look to local authorities to enable alternative models of development on larger brownfield sites, rather than the profit-driven models currently used by volume house builders. Such sites are often plagued by delays caused by factors such as fragmented land ownership; more clarity over the use of compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) can ensure that these sites come forward for development faster.

Through CPOs local authorities could promote custom-build projects by selling small parcels of land to small building co-operatives formed of future residents, specialist builders and architects. This would allow future residents to guide development so that it better meets aspirations and is more responsive to local housing need. This model of development has been successful in Vauban in Freiburg, Germany.

With the housing crisis rumbling on, government needs to maximise the contribution that brownfield sites can make – but for that we need new policies alongside new targets. There are many policies out there that can be adapted to increase levels of residential development; in the quest to build new homes responsive to the needs of wider communities, let’s use them.

Luke Burroughs is policy and research adviser at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). Luke’s latest thought paper on tackling the housing crisis, entitled Better brownfield, is released on 11 March 2015. Luke can be contacted at LukeB@cpre.org.uk.

 
 
 
 

More than 830 cities have brought essential services back under public control. Others should follow

A power station near Nottingham: not one owned by Robin Hood Energy, alas, but we couldn't find anything better. Image: Getty.

The wave of cities worldwide rejecting privatization is far bigger and more successful than anyone thought, according to a new report from the Transnational Institute, Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation. Some 835 cities in 45 countries have brought essential services like water, energy and health care back under public control.

The persistent myth that public services are by nature more expensive and less efficient is losing its momentum. Citizens and users do not necessarily have to resign to paying increasingly higher tariffs for lower standard services. The decline of working conditions in public services is not an inevitability.

And the ever larger role private companies have played in public service delivery may at last be waning. The remunicipalisation movement – cities or local authorities reclaiming privatised services or developing new options – demonstrates that cities and citizens are working to protect and reinvent essential services.

The failure of austerity and privatisation to deliver promised improvements and investments is part of the reason this movement has advanced. But the real driver has been a desire to meet goals such as addressing climate change or increasing democratic participation in service provision. Lower costs and tariffs, improved conditions for workers and better service quality are frequently reported following remunicipalisation.  Meanwhile transparency and accountability have also improved.

Where remunicipalisation succeeds, it also tends to inspire other local authorities to make similar moves. Examples are plentiful. Municipalities have joined forces to push for renewable, climate-friendly energy initiatives in countries like Germany. Public water operators in France and Catalonia are sharing resources and expertise, and working together to overcome the challenges they meet.

Outside Europe, experiments in public services are gaining ground too. Delhi set up 1,000 Mohalla (community) clinics across the city in 2015 as a first step to delivering affordable primary health care. Some 110 clinics were working in some of the poorest areas of Delhi as of February 2017. The Delhi government claims that more than 2.6m of its poorest residents have received free quality health care since the clinics were set up.


Local authorities and the public are benefiting from savings too. When the Nottingham City Council found out that many low-income families in the city were struggling to pay their energy bills, they set up a new supply company. The company, Robin Hood Energy, which offers the lowest prices in the UK, has the motto: “No private shareholders. No director bonuses. Just clear transparent pricing.”

Robin Hood Energy has also formed partnerships with other major cities. In 2016, the city of Leeds set up the White Rose Energy municipal company to promote simple no-profit tariffs throughout the Yorkshire and Humberside regions. In 2017, the cities of Bradford and Doncaster agreed to join the White Rose/Robin Hood partnership.

Meanwhile, campaigners with Switched on London are pushing their city to set up a not-for-profit energy company with genuine citizen participation. The motivations in these diverse cities are similar: young municipal companies can simultaneously beat energy poverty and play a key role in achieving a just and renewable energy transition.

Remunicipalised public services often involve new forms of participation for workers and citizens. Remunicipalisation is often a first step towards creating the public services of the future: sustainable and grounded in the local economy. Inspiration can be found in the European towns and villages aiming for 'zero waste' with their remunicipalised waste service, or providing 100 per cent locally-sourced organic food in their remunicipalised school restaurants.

Public services are not good simply because they are not private. Public services must also continuously renew themselves, grow, innovate and recommit to the public they serve.

The push for remunicipalisation in Catalonia, for example, has come from a movement of citizen platforms. For them, a return to public management is not just an end in itself, but a first step towards the democratic management of public services based on ongoing civil participation.

Evidence is building that people are able to reclaim public services and usher in a new generation of public ownership. The momentum is building, as diverse movements and actors join forces to bring positive change in communities around the world.

You can read the Transnational Institute report, “Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation”, on its website.