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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Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.


Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.