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.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.