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.

 
 
 
 

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.