No, there isn’t enough brownfield land to solve England’s housing crisis

Chelsea Barracks, London, in 2011: an example of a brownfield site appropriate for housing. Image: Getty.

Few things in life are certain. That the taxman will want his share. That, one day, you will die. And that, within three minutes of any discussion of how to solve Britain’s housing crisis beginning, someone who thinks they are clever will use the word “brownfield” as if it amounts to an answer and not simply a declaration that they haven’t done the reading. Which is what it actually is.

Brownfield, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, does not literally mean brown fields. In British planning circles, it generally means land that has been developed in the past, in some way or another. Often it’s used more colloquially as if it carries a more specific mean, that of “former industrial land” – depressing looking places of the sort which nobody would mourn if they were redeveloped as housing.

The idea of redeveloping brownfield as opposed to virgin, ‘greenfield’ land is an attractive one. It means keeping our towns and cities compact; regenerating abandoned sites; and protecting the great British countryside, all rolled into one. Why wouldn’t you favour a brownfield first housing policy?

Well, actually, there are several reasons why one wouldn’t. Some brownfield land is in places people don’t actually want to live, so is effectively of no use whatsoever. Some is, confusingly, too green to be worth concreting: there are brownfield sites in North Kent that are currently nature reserves. And some brownfield land was so contaminated by industrial uses that government can either spend a fortune to clean it up or risk weeks of headlines about the sudden appearance of kids that glow in the dark like the Midwich cuckoos.

Strong arguments all. But there’s a bigger, simpler retort to the brownfield first argument: we’ve tried it, and it hasn’t worked. And a significant reason for that is that there isn’t enough of the bloody stuff.

A couple of weeks back, the National Housing Federation, the umbrella group for housing associations, published an interactive map of all England’s brownfield land. It’s fun, if you’re into that sort of thing. Here’s central London:

 

And here’s Liverpool, with details of one site pulled up:

As fun as the map is, though – which it definitely is – the more important point is the figures that accompany it. The NHF found more than 17,000 brownfield sites in England, totalling around 27,700 hectares. At average densities – which, extrapolating, the researchers assume to be around 35 homes per hectare – that would be enough land for around 961,683 homes.

Which, as the NHF’s executive director Simon Nunn notes, is a bit of a problem:

“England is short of four million homes. If we’re to meet this demand by 2031 we need to build 340,000 homes every year…

“Even if this map can help housing associations build more quickly on brownfield sits, there is only enough brownfield land in the country to build a million new homes. This is of course significant, but it is not enough to end the housing crisis altogether.”

The NHF’s conclusion is that actually meeting housing targets will mean looking beyond brownfield, and expanding the land on which we build:

“We also need to look at building homes on disused public land, as well as sites that have not been built on before. This will have to include some parts of the Green Belt where appropriate”

I am shocked. This is me looking shocked. This is my shocked face.

There’s stuff in this report that one could argue with. For one thing, I’m not sure it’s comprehensive. There is not a single site in the London borough of Havering, which seems unlikely to me, so I suspect there’s stuff it’s missed:

One could also argue that, at a time of crisis, we should build at higher than average densities – on which basis perhaps there is room for more than a million homes here. And, actually, there is another option, which the NHF ignores: to, in effect, create more brownfield, by knocking stuff down and rebuilding at higher densities than before.


But there are obvious responses to all of these questions. People don’t want to live at higher than average densities. If the NHF has missed some brownfield sites, it seems unlikely it’s missed the enough to undermine its basic point. And if you think building on greenfield is unpopular, wait until you try telling people that the solution to the housing crisis is to demolish their low-rise homes.

So the basic point remains. We should build on brownfield over greenfield, where possible. But it’s not actually a solution to the housing crisis. And the idea we can fix this mess without taking some hard choice is nothing but a comforting lie, put about by people who haven’t done their research.

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

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Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.