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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

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

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.