Letter: Brownfield sites are often the most challenging and expensive to develop

Mmmmmm new houses. Image: Getty.

Our latest foray into the CityMetric postbag...

Dear CityMetric,

Further to your enjoyable article on the implausibility of a ‘brownfield first’ solution to the housing crisis, I think there are a couple of other points that should be highlighted more often in the debate, but are often missed. They relate to the commercial challenges associated with bringing forward brownfield land.

Brownfield sites are often amongst the most technically challenging and expensive sites to bring forward. In the case of a former industrial site, there could be a century’s worth of chemicals and unpleasant contamination lingering in the soil. There are (rightly) very strict protocols and standards for cleaning up such land. These can be eye-wateringly expensive and extremely time-consuming, which can in turn have serious impacts on a project’s viability.

For instance, a heavily contaminated site with a history of chemical use – of which there are several coming forward for regeneration across the country – might require the stripping of several inches of topsoil from the entire development parcel, and replacement with clean earth from elsewhere. This is an extremely long and costly engineering process.  

The time and financial cost has real impacts on the nature, and timescales, of a regeneration. It is not uncommon to see brownfield redevelopment proposals on former industrial land come forward with lower than average levels of affordable housing, due to the impact on viability. Any ‘brownfield first’ policy would necessarily involve lower rates of delivery of affordable housing.

Additionally, the extra time taken to deliver a brownfield site (demolition, remediation, etc.) should not be underestimated. Such factors can add years to the lifespan of a project. To a committed member of the Guildford Greenbelt Group or similar anti-greenfield campaign, I’m sure this seems a price worth paying. But this neglects the very human, and immediate, impact of the housing crisis: the undersupply of housing restricts aspiration and security for countless thousands of people in the present day.

It’s all too easy, even to those of us who work in the housing and planning industry, to think of the housing crisis in abstract terms, a problem of economic models and market incentives to be solved over half a century. As a young(ish) person privately renting a converted garage within commutable distance of London, I can attest to a very real, very present impact on people’s lives. And I’m one of the luckier ones, with a secure job with prospects and a salary that allows me to eke out a deposit for a tiny apartment.

I’ll finish by contrasting the added hurdles of brownfield regeneration with the relative technical ease of a greenfield site. The latter usually has fewer constraints, not being littered with industrial history, and delivery of housing can start soon after the relevant permissions and legal agreements are signed, with no need for complex remediation activity. Of course there’s a cost to developing greenfield sites, which should never be dismissed – but it’s surely a price worth paying given the circumstances.

Richard Parry works in the housing and planning industry and is based in Essex.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.