Brownfield land is the answer to the housing crisis. Here’s how we can build on it

Our green and pleasant land. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.