Is brownfield land quicker to develop than greenfield? CPRE research suggests so

A building site and some fields, arrange in a way which says something about things. Image: Getty.

Paul Miner, the planning campaign manager for the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), on new research showing that developing brownfield land is faster.

CPRE is well-known for campaigning to build new housing on brownfield (that is, sites which have already been built on). By doing this, we believe we can avoid unnecessary urban sprawl and loss of valuable countryside.

Since the 1990s, huge strides have been taken in making use of brownfield sites, with regeneration taking place in large areas of Birmingham, London, Manchester and other cities. Cities that could have spread out have become more enjoyable places to live within.

But today it can seem that greenfield is crowding out brownfield: many are arguing that resorting to building on fresh sites is the only way to build the houses we need. And national planning policies no longer prioritise brownfield redevelopment to the degree they once did. So is it still a viable option?

We decided to test one of the central contentions in the arguments against brownfield development: that redeveloping it is noticeably slower and more difficult than developing greenfield.

CPRE commissioned consultants Glenigan to compare the speed of housing development on 696 brownfield sites with development on 269 greenfield sites across 15 local authorities. The authorities – including Salford, Southampton and County Durham – were chosen for the significant amounts of both greenfield and brownfield in their planning pipelines, and for geographical spread.

The research found that brownfield sites are actually developed far more quickly than greenfield sites once planning permission has been granted. 

Both brownfield and greenfield sites took an average of 29 weeks to start after receiving planning permission. However, brownfield sites were then much quicker to develop once work had started, taking an average of 63 weeks to be completed, in comparison with 92 weeks for greenfield sites – on average more than six months quicker. Larger sites of 50 or more units were more than a year faster from approval to completion. 

Number of weeks taken for projects to be completed following planning approval, by size of scheme. Click to expand. Image: CPRE.

Some sites were stalled but relatively few, and that affected both brownfield and greenfield; and the number of units represented by stalled or cancelled sites was roughly the same proportion for both (around 4 per cent). We don’t know why that’s happening at the moment but we need to understand that better, too.

We were also prompted to look more closely at some of the local authorities surveyed – Cheshire East, Durham, and Salford. During the years studied by Glenigan, these three authorities attempted to prioritise brownfield by refusing development on nearby greenfield sites. Yet planning inspectors overruled the councils, arguing that there is no evidence that releasing additional greenfield sites undermines the development of brownfield that has already received planning permission. 

The new research showed that just over 2,000 houses were built on greenfield sites in these areas over the period – while 5,000 homes on brownfield were not completed. Such a loss of greenfield land, therefore, looks to be unnecessary.

In a Parliamentary debate on 26 February, housing and planning minister Brandon Lewis said: “The [National Planning Policy] framework… makes it clear that local authorities should prioritise suitable brownfield land wherever practicable.” Our research makes it clear that ministers need to strengthen planning policy on brownfield: at present, the NPPF is often not working in the way that Ministers say they intend it to.

We do realise that there are often additional upfront expenses involved, such as remediating or removing contamination. We also recognise – and enthusiastically welcome – government moves to invest £2.2bn into brownfield regeneration and to establish a brownfield register. The recently announced register pilot should show how authorities can identify suitable sites and make their towns and cities better places to live. We know from work conducted in late 2014 that we can build at least a million new homes on suitable brownfield sites.

What we hope this new research shows, however, is that we must and can be even more positive about brownfield as one of the major solutions to building the affordable homes we need – and quickly.

The government’s recent planning consultation spent time proposing that councils be forced to release more sites for development if already high housing targets are not met. And the Budget suggested we plan for new garden suburbs, villages and towns.

But as development patterns in Cheshire, Durham and Salford show, releasing more land is likely to lead to developers cherry-picking increased amounts of greenfield sites; brownfield sites will stall; and countryside will be lost.

Investing more in brownfield will ensure we get new homes built, in the right places, at a speed the government and young people want. 

Paul Miner is the planning campaign manager for the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).


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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.