The government is legislating for statutory registers of brownfield land suitable for housing to be introduced. While some local authorities already possess such registers, many will have to produce them. It is estimated that over half the brownfield land in the UK is vacant or derelict, the remainder being currently used, but still possessing possibilities for redevelopment.
Of course, much brownfield land is unsuitable for the immediate development of housing, due to factors such as existing structures that require demolition, poor access, a lack of utilities, risks of subsidence, flood risks or potential land contamination. However, such obstacles can be overcome in some instances. Land remediation work can restore contaminated land, while suitable flood defences and sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) can often reduce flood risk. In theory, access to sites can be improved by building new roads, although in practice public funds are unlikely to be available for any extensive road construction.
The government has announced that automatic permission in principle will be given to build houses on registered brownfield land suitable for housing, subject to a limited number of technical details. This will give England a zonal planning system, similar to those in many other countries.
The recent Treasury paper, ‘Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation’, includes the following statement: ‘The government is committed to an urban planning revolution on brownfield sites, including funding to provide infrastructure, strong local leadership to shape development and assemble sites, and the removal of unnecessary planning obstacles.’ The government believes that uncertainty over planning permission has often blighted the development of brownfield land in the past. Where developers have applied for permission, the resulting detailed scrutiny has often slowed down projects. The government hopes that the automatic granting of permission in principle will remove uncertainty and reduce delays.
The government has a target for 70% of suitable brownfield land to be zoned for housing by 2017 and 90% by 2020. Councils that fail to meet the targets may be subject to special measures, including developers having the right to apply directly to the Planning Inspectorate for permission to build on such land. Thus it seems that the government, previously keen on localism, is prepared to override councils if it feels that they are dragging their feet. It may be a challenge for some local authorities to meet the targets, since many have cut back on their planning departments over the years.
The government has indicated that it is also considering changes to the compulsory purchase system with regard to brownfield land. It is believed that increased powers will be given to local authorities to compulsory purchase such land, where it is needed as part of a major development. The government has stated, in the ‘Fixing the foundations’ Treasury paper, that it wants to ‘allow local authorities and others to drive forward and shape brownfield development.’ However, the Secretary of State will still have to sign off compulsory purchase orders. Localism only goes so far.
The current changes to brownfield land regulations only apply to England. There seem to be no plans at present to extend this automatic permission to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
In London, where the demand for housing is greatest, the Chancellor and Mayor of London have jointly announced £400m of investment to set up 20 housing zones on brownfield land. It is planned that new housing will normally be high density. In order to protect the surrounding green belt countryside, a ‘build up’ rather than a ‘build out’ strategy will be employed in London. A so-called ‘Domesday Book’ of brownfield sites is to be compiled by the estate research firm Savills. The information on brownfield sites in the capital has not been systematically collected previously. A London Land Commission, comprising representatives from different public bodies, has been launched to free up surplus public land.
The Mayor of Greater Manchester is also to be given additional powers to drive forward the development of brownfield sites. These powers will include the ability to form Development Corporations and increased compulsory purchase powers.
Elsewhere in the country, the economics of building on brownfield land suitable for housing varies greatly. Some southern areas, such as Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire, have a huge demand for new housing, but relatively few brownfield sites. In some areas of northern England, there may be more brownfield land, but as house prices are relatively low, its development may not be profitable (although this is by no means always true). Developers will have to look carefully at each site on a case by case basis, employing professional advice on the likely cost of any remediation work required.
Many brownfield sites are actually owned by the government. The Ministry of Defence and the NHS have particularly large land holdings, both greenfield and brownfield. NHS trusts have identified land with the capacity for almost 13,500 homes, and the government, through the Homes and Community Agency, is helping them dispose of this land for housing development. The Homes and Communities Agency plays a key role in government land disposals, both by offering advice to other government bodies, and by organising the clean-up of contaminated land when required. In some cases, it arranges planning permission with the local authority, in order to speed up sale and development.
Some large developments are currently taking place on former government land. An example is the Northstowe development in Cambridgeshire, where the building of a new town has recently commenced, after many delays, on the site on the former Oakington Airfield. The site was a mixture of brownfield and greenfield, and required various buildings to be demolished prior to development. The town’s full development will have to await the upgrading of local roads, which is expected to take many years. Inadequate roads often delay large housing developments, or lead to commuter gridlock for the new residents if the houses are built prior to transport improvements.
As more brownfield land becomes available for housing, cost effective land reclamation becomes more important. It is important to use the correct technology to remediate land to the required standard, without undergoing unnecessary expense, so professional advice should always be sought.
Greater London Authority Website, ‘Mayor to build first-ever database of public land for development in London’, (July 2015). https://www.london.gov.uk/press-releases/boris-johnson-mp/land-database-for-london
RIBA Website, ‘Chancellor pushes ahead with brownfield planning revolution.’ https://www.architecture.com/RIBA/Contactus/NewsAndPress/Membernews/PracticeNews/2015/July2015/16July2015/Chancellorpushesaheadwithbrownfieldplanningrevolution.aspx
Homes & Communities Agency Website, ‘Brownfield and public land.’ https://cfg.homesandcommunities.co.uk/ourwork/register-surplus-public-sector-land
Northstowe Website. http://www.northstowe.com/