In defence of ‘brownfield-first’ housing policies

Mmmm houses. Image: Getty.

The co-ordinator of the Smart Growth UK coalition on the case for prioritising brownfield sites.

Glib talk about “the housing crisis” disguises the fact the UK is facing several crises in housing – only one of which, young adults’ difficulties in buying their own homes, appears to be something the government really cares about. In such a vacuum it’s all too easy to let self-serving building industry rhetoric about threats from things like brownfield-first policies take root.

The other bits of this crisis – social housing, the growing challenge of housing the elderly (where the real population growth is) and absentee landlordism – aren’t part of this narrative. But it’s a tale the house building industry, which can afford to pay people eight-figure bonuses, uses to attack sustainable planning. Brownfield-first and countryside protection policies have to be drowned in a pond of well-funded PR crocodile tears.

Potential buyers’ frustration about being stuck in a rapacious private rented sector is understandable. In fact, it was a one-off decision by lenders, only 40 years ago, to start giving mortgages on pre-1914 houses that cranked up the 1980s boom in ownership – yet it’s still treated like a permanent paradigm. Since then, lenders have pumped more and more money into the sector, just pushing up prices.

It’s all too easy to be seduced by calls to abolish things like brownfield-first policies in the mania to build. But these policies were actually abolished in England six years ago and, since then, things have only got worse.

There are very good reasons for brownfield-first planning policies, even if they might take a sliver off the edge of volume builders’ enormous profits.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way. Brownfield-first doesn’t mean brownfield-only: it just means local authorities allocating land for house building must allocate their suitable brownfield land before greenfield.

Brownfield sites are indeed often a bit more expensive to develop than greenfield; but many sites aren’t contaminated at all, and “eye-wateringly expensive” sites are rare among those that are. Over the past 30 years, the remediation industry has developed cost-effective techniques for dealing with contamination; there are tax-breaks and Housing Infrastructure Fund money to help deal with it, too.

Other than that, yes, brownfield site reclamation is often marginally more costly, but nothing that should reduce the delivery of affordable housing.

Builders were handed this convenient brickbat to chuck at planning authorities six years ago, when the Treasury was mistakenly convinced that brownfield-first policies were reducing the amount of greenfield land being developed, ordered its abolition, and inserted ‘viability’ provisions in national planning policy. Since then builders have profiteered merrily as they wriggle out of their affordable housing responsibilities.


There’s a raft of good reasons to support brownfield-first policies. The sight of derelict sites in any town is a huge disincentive to investors. Regeneration of depressed areas depends on brownfield development; greenfield just sucks more life out of towns.

Derelict sites also encourage antisocial behaviour and the spread of invasive plants like Japanese knotweed. And there is scientific evidence which demonstrates they have a negative effect on local peoples’ health.

Brownfield sites are usually much better located than greenfield as they tend to be in towns, close to shops, education, healthcare and public transport. Greenfield ones tend to be outside towns, encouraging people to use their cars, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, congestion and accidents.

Urban sites also save public money as they can use much of the existing infrastructure, while out-of-town demands new provision. And in London, there is no real alternative to brownfield anyway.

It’s easy to be convinced that shortages of all kinds of housing, not just market, in London and the prosperous parts of southern England are all there is to this problem. But housing problems here are a symptom of an overheated regional economy which has sucked life out of the rest of the UK.

Much of the country is desperate for the jobs over-concentrated in the capital. Often those regions also have plenty of housing, and plenty of brownfield land where more is needed.

Actually, people outside the South East have aspirations too – as do those in London who can’t afford market homes and don’t benefit by one single brick from greenfield development pepper-potted over the rest of the region.

The drivers for the anti-brownfield-first campaign are purely commercial. There are very good social, housing, environmental and economic reasons for a brownfield-first policy, and they pose no threat to anyone. Except, perhaps, the volume house builders’ PR people.

Jon Reeds is the co-ordinator of the Smart Growth UK coalition.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.