Why Brownfield is not enough to solve London’s housing crisis

Look at all this lovely brownfield land. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty.

The first of a short series looking at different options for solving London's housing problems.  

In the debate about London’s housing shortage, “brownfield” is often talked of as if there were vast swathes of unused land waiting to be reclaimed. The truth is, almost all London’s land is already used for something – and changing its use is slow, expensive and hard.

Brownfield must deliver much of the housing London needs, but a new report by Quod and homelessness charity Shelter finds that brownfield will not be enough – and urges the next mayor not to rule out other approaches.

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So how is London’s land used? About two-thirds of the developed land already has housing on it. Of the rest, most is used for transport (including 15,000 km of roads), town centres and vital urban infrastructure like schools and hospitals.

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That leaves about 9 per cent of London, which is essentially “employment land”. This is used for all sorts of things – light industry, distribution depots, leisure, retail warehouses, sewage works.

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To build housing on this land means removing something else first. That can and should be done in many places – but it is slow, difficult and expensive. It may mean finding a new place for existing uses, decontaminating land, and building new stations or other infrastructure.

This painstaking land-use change is happening in many places already – so what scope is there for more to be done?

About half of non-housing brownfield land that is currently in employment uses – the half that is most suitable for redevelopment – is already earmarked for change in the mayor’s “Opportunity Areas”. Tens of thousands of homes are being built in places such as Kings Cross, Stratford and Nine Elms. This is already part of London’s current land supply.

If brownfield is to deliver more on top of these Opportunity Areas, some very difficult choices need to be made. Getting more out of brownfield is not an “easy option” – and if brownfield is our only option it is highly unlikely that London will be able to build enough new homes quickly enough.

The history of successful brownfield developments in London – like Kings Cross or Vauxhall/Nine Elms/Battersea – is that it can take many decades to deliver, and may finally need major public investment in infrastructure.

We can get more from brownfield, but it will not be quick and it will not be cheap. And we cannot expect it to deliver all the homes London so urgently needs. To fill the current gap in delivery using brownfield alone would mean the equivalent of another Olympic Legacy sized scheme, every three months or so, on top of what we’re already building. Other options simply must not be ruled out.

We cannot carry on as we are and expect housing delivery to double. We have to change things if we want enough homes. The level of housebuilding we need now has only been (briefly) achieved twice in the past – once through major public investment in council housing, and once through major expansion on greenfield land. 

Throughout London’s history, the private sector has never built more than 18,000 homes a year on brownfield land. To meet the city’s housing needs, we have to consider other options.

Tomorrow, we'll look at one of those options: garden cities.

Barney Stringer is a director at regeneration consultancy Quod. This article was originally posted on his blog.

The firm’s report, “Brownfield is Not Enough”, published with housing charity Shelter, is available here.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.