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.