At the start of last week prime minister David Cameron pledged in a speech to build 200,000 starter homes on brownfield land. This pledge was the latest policy announcement aimed at refocusing development on brownfield, encouraging urban regeneration, and protecting green spaces.
The extent to which brownfield land can provide solutions to the housing crisis is regularly debated. Some organisations who propose further development on greenfield and Green Belt argue that brownfield land is a finite resource that can only meet a fraction of housing need. Others, like the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), believe that we have good reason to put brownfield first. A recent CPRE report with the University of the West of England showed that suitable brownfield land can support at least a million new homes; it also showed that the supply of brownfield sites is renewable, with new sites replacing those that are redeveloped.
Such positive intent from Whitehall is therefore welcome – but there remains an issue of quality within these grand quantity targets. Homes built under previous target-driven policies for brownfield have often lacked a mix of housing responsive to the aspirations of residents and the needs of local people, and have often been poor quality small units aimed at investment purchasers rather than built as homes.
To ensure that new homes on brownfield are those that communities need, we must look to implement new policies to support development.
A good starting point would be measures to encourage brownfield remediation. Despite a “polluter-pays” principle, the most common method of remediating contaminated brownfield land is as part of a development project; the only government assistance provided is corporation tax relief on certain costs involved. This can leave the developer paying a crippling 70 per cent of remediation costs – a burden severe enough to make many sites unviable.
To find a new approach we can look to the US for a precedent. Some states offer 100 per cent taxation relief via credits on all brownfield remediation costs, so long as a development meets certain social goals in terms of dwelling and use mix. A similar policy here would incentivise higher quality building on brownfield land.
The public sector, meanwhile, needs to play a greater role in making brownfield land available for development. It has been estimated that certain central government bodies own over 8,000 hectares of land in urban areas, with local authorities and other public bodies also likely to be large landowners. Government could therefore require public sector bodies to register and map their landholdings, assess whether they are suitable for development (particularly if they are small-scale, infill sites that can be developed speedily by small house builders), and work with developers and housing associations to deliver the housing types that are most required by communities.
Finally, we should look to local authorities to enable alternative models of development on larger brownfield sites, rather than the profit-driven models currently used by volume house builders. Such sites are often plagued by delays caused by factors such as fragmented land ownership; more clarity over the use of compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) can ensure that these sites come forward for development faster.
Through CPOs local authorities could promote custom-build projects by selling small parcels of land to small building co-operatives formed of future residents, specialist builders and architects. This would allow future residents to guide development so that it better meets aspirations and is more responsive to local housing need. This model of development has been successful in Vauban in Freiburg, Germany.
With the housing crisis rumbling on, government needs to maximise the contribution that brownfield sites can make – but for that we need new policies alongside new targets. There are many policies out there that can be adapted to increase levels of residential development; in the quest to build new homes responsive to the needs of wider communities, let’s use them.
Luke Burroughs is policy and research adviser at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). Luke’s latest thought paper on tackling the housing crisis, entitled Better brownfield, is released on 11 March 2015. Luke can be contacted at LukeB@cpre.org.uk.