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.

 
 
 
 

What’s in Edinburgh’s 10 year transport masterplan?

Edinburgh. Image: Getty.

Edinburgh City Council has released a draft 10-year transport plan, and put it out to public consultation. The jauntily-named Edinburgh City Centre Transformation Proposed Strategy comes soon after a 20 mph zone was rolled out and the extension of the city's tram line was approved.

The council’s overriding aims are to make the city centre much friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists, and to get people out of cars and thus reduce air pollution. With the city forecast to grow larger than Glasgow within our lifetime, and with tourist numbers increasing with every year, it is encouraging that Edinburgh is making ambitious plans for a low carbon future. There is a surfeit of exciting ideas in the proposals, so even if half of them survive the consultation stage it would be a great achievement.

First off, yes there are going to be more trams. The council proposals include a a circular loop with trams going from Princes Street over the majestic North Bridge which connects the Old and New Towns. From there, it will continue over South Bridge, hook west through the University of Edinburgh area before linking back up with the current tram line at Haymarket railway station.

A summary of the plans: click to expand.

This is an exciting update to the tram network, which will provide services to the south of the city centre soon after the trams extend north through Leith. A free hop-on bus will also do a loop around the city centre, and will seek to emulate other cities, such as Talinn, which offer free transport.

North Bridge, which spans over Waverley station, will be closed to cars but will remain open to buses as this is a vital route. There will also be a new lift installed on the south side of Waverley station, to make it easier for people with prams, the elderly and the disabled to get from the platforms up to North Bridge: at present anyone doing this is required to take a lift to Princes Street, on the opposite side of the railway. Further lifts are planned to make it easier to get from the Grassmarket to Edinburgh Castle, from Market Street to The Mound, and from the Cowgate to George IV Bridge.


East of North Bridge there will be a brand new bridge for cyclists and pedestrians connecting the Old and New Towns. Although there is no crossing here at present, those with long memories will recall there was a pedestrian bridge here in the past, originally built as compensation for the fact the railway line had effectively split Edinburgh in half. However, British Rail “temporarily” closed the bridge from Jeffrey Street across the railway line to Calton Road in 1950, and never re-opened it again.

To the west of North Bridge lies Waverley Bridge, which is a lower-level crossing of the railway. At present this is open to all vehicles, and is where the bus to the airports departs from. The council’s plan is for this bridge, which runs from Princes Street to the bottom of the steep Cockburn Street, to be completely pedestrianised.

Actually, in a move that will prove popular with tourists, many streets in the historic Old Town will also be pedestrianised. The city has already began trials of this on the first Sunday of the month, allowing people to have access to Instagram-ready streets such as the winding Victoria Street, which leads to the Grassmarket, and Cockburn Street, which connects the Royal Mile with Waverley Bridge. A greater portion of the Royal Mile, the popular avenue for tourists which is packed during the Fringe, also looks set to be pedestrianised. The plan also promises more support for cyclists, with various segregated cycle lanes, such as one along a newly tree-lined Lothian Road to connect Princes Street with The Meadows.

The proposals for improved cycling access: click to expand.

Altogether, the 10 year vision is very ambitious and in Sir Humphrey-speak, “interesting”. There will surely be a lot of pressure from motorists and the Conservatives to scale back the plans, which aim to seriously reduce when and how car users can access the city centre, in favour of pedestrians and cyclists.

Motorists will lose crossings into the Old Town at North Bridge and Waverley Bridge, although they will still be able to drive from the middle of Princes Street up The Mound. Aside from that, car users wishing to enter the Old Town will be forced to either come in from the west via Lothian Road, or to take a long diversion around Abbeyhill to the east.

Of course the plans could still do with improvements such as re-opening the entirely complete suburban railway which circles Edinburgh and is only open to freight at present. Nonetheless, Edinburgh has been presented with an exciting low-carbon vision of the future. Hopefully it will act on it.

You can see the full plan here.

Pete Macleod tweets as @petemacleod84 and runs Pete’s Cheap Trains.