How to get more brownfield development

A new report from the centre-right think tank Civitas gives welcome support to the case for building on previously developed brownfield land before encroaching on the countryside. Restoring brownfield sites in our inner towns and cities by the industrialist Peter Haslehurst draws on the author’s considerable experience of how costly and difficult it is to remediate brownfield sites. The short report is full of good examples and is well worth reading.

Many brownfield sites require no remediation, but those that do are often eyesores that bring the rest of the town down. Without policy changes, the report says, ‘our towns and cities will continue to be scarred by ugly derelict sites left to rot and our beautiful countryside (which tourists cross continents to see) will be gradually eroded by building development’.


It argues that the UK should learn from the US and do much more to make brownfield remediation economically viable. In the US, for instance, firms get full tax relief to cover the costs of cleaning up contaminated land. UK government initiatives such as Get Britain Building should be adapted to give favour brownfield development.


One questionable part of the report is the estimate, based on 2003 data, that there is enough brownfield land in England for 2.5 million new homes. CPRE’s calculation is that there is enough for 1.5 million homes. This is disputed by the Government, even though it is based on government figures for 2009. The 2010 figures, which are not yet available online, show unsurprisingly an increase in the amount of brownfield land. But it has so far proved impossible to get more up to date figures (our Freedom of Information request was refused on the grounds that the reports for 2011 onwards are incomplete).


It would be good to have agreement on how much land is available, but whatever the figure it is clear that a good deal of land that could and should be developed is currently going to waste, while beautiful and productive countryside is being lost. This brownfield land could, if developed, go a long way to helping solve the housing crisis.


The Government is showing signs of recognising that it made a mistake in abandoning the focus on brownfield development which began under John Major’s premiership. But as the Civitas report shows – and as CPRE’s Charter to save our countryside argues – there is a lot more that it should do.



10 Responses to “How to get more brownfield development”

  1. 1 Katy Harwood-Lane May 14, 2014 at 8:10 am

    Just to let you know…when I spoke to Geoffrey Clifton-Brown about building on greenfield sites etc where I live, I asked him why brownfield sites were not made a priority… He said did I really want Government to ‘force’ people to build on brownfield sites first and I said ‘why not?’. I don’t necessarily condone ‘forcing’ but for goodness sake if a Government can change the law because it doesn’t like being defeated over closing hospitals it can change the law with regard to making brownfield sites an obligatory first option (yes, with tax benefits if necessary) unless a developer can make a very good argument why he/she cannot use it.

    Building on AONB land or sites of SSSI should NEVER be a first option when rotting brownfield sites sit empty and useless.

  2. 2 stevenboxall May 14, 2014 at 10:57 am

    An interesting report, but I don’t think we can actually force developers to develop brownfield sites before greenfield sites are developed. For some of the reasons outlined in the report we could end up with no development because the economics just don’t add up. However, when the lack of economic viability case is used I would like to ensure that the land value is zero or even negative when the additional costs justify this.

    In addition, I don’t think we can just have a blanket policy of not one single greenfield site being developed until all brownfield sites have been developed. Some brownfield sites are just not where some people want to be and this locational preference can only be changed over a prolonged period of time. Even where brownfield sites make sense for housing, what is the point when the homes will not be for ordinary people but for international investors and/or the super-rich who will mainly be absent occupiers?

    In my view the definition of brownfield is meaningless. Kings Hill in Kent was counted as brownfield because it was at one time used as an airfield, but in reality most of the site was actually green-fields. I would also argue that its locaton is very poor and depends on private car use to live in or work at. As a brownfield site perhaps it would have been better re-used for agricultural land?

    Part of the problem with the redevelopment of brownfield sites is that too many developers don’t like or appreciate old or historic structures and buildings. They see them as a problem rather than an asset (one of the issues highlighed in my MSc Dissertation about empty historic buildings). Too many developers also don’t understand the vital importance of ‘Place Making’ and, I am afraid to say, neither have successive Government ‘Regeneration Agencies’. They see an empty site and haven’t got the imagination to see what it could be.

    Too often brownfield sites are only seen as places to build on. Some sites should be used to create a sence of place, and in the creation of new parks, open spaces and public realm. Just look at how some large ex-industrial sites have been used in Germany – instead of seeing them as development sites which have to make a return they have been turned into large scale parks and gardens. The UK’s ‘Regeneration Agencies’ should turn more brownfield sites into parks and open space, but they find this difficult if not impossible to do because of the way the Treasury requires them to account for their funding and expenditure – they can’t be seen to lose money, so end up acting like any other developer which surely negates the whole point of having state intervention.

    It can take a long time for brownfield sites to be ready for development – but they shouldn’t be left empty; there ought to be a temporary use strategy which helps change the image of the site and its surrounding area and doesn’t blight its hinterland.

    It is interesting that all of the ‘innovative techniques’ used in the USA for remediating comtaminated land which were mentioned in the report are featured in my BSc Dissertation on Contaminated Land of over 20 years ago. A bit shocking if these are not being used in the UK as they are no longer innovative after 20 years.

    So, yes, we should be using more of our brownfield sites and doing so in innovative ways, and not just for ‘development’ but in creating new open-spaces. We need Government Agencies to do some of the work but doing more than just acting as a developer (or handing over the sites to developers) – where the market has failed it doesn’t make sense to use market models and methods to find a solution. But, it is not as simple as saying that there can be no greenfield development until all brownfield sites have been developed.

  3. 3 Jon Reeds May 15, 2014 at 10:15 am

    There seem to be some strange perspectives flying around about what “brownfield-first” means.
    It was never “brownfield-only”, it simply required local planning authorities to prioritize suitable brownfield sites for housing in their local plans before they agreed to release of greenfield sites.
    Thanks to the low densities house builders find most profitable on greenfield sites, there was probably never a time when even a majority of house building land was brownfield, even if a relatively high proportion of the actual homes built during the 2000s were on brownfield land.
    Nor was it ever the case that brownfield sites were only seen as places to build on. Some of them were too contaminated to build on and have been reclaimed as open space, woodland etc.. And not only contaminated ones. Think of Pride Park in Derby or even London’s Burgess Park. Most brownfield developments in recent decades have also included an element of open space.
    It is certainly true that people have misinterpreted the various definitions of brownfield or previously developed land. PDL restored to open uses like agriculture, woodland or park were defined as greenfield in both PPG3 and PPS3, something that’s often forgotten.
    The recent debate over development of the Lodge Hill site, famous for its nightingales, was used as a stick to beat brownfield-first with but, as the inquiry demonstrated, it is in fact more than 80% greenfield. And lots of attempts have been made to claim disused aerodromes were all brownfield when in fact they’re mostly grassland and always have been. This was well demonstrated by CPRE’s report on the greenfield:brownfield balance of the former “eco town” programme.
    I really don’t understand the point about not developing brownfield homes because they might be occupied by absentee super-rich landlords. So might greenfield homes.
    There are many good reasons for reinstating brownfield-first. Most brownfield land is in towns and much of it in towns in need of regeneration. Economic, social and physical regeneration of our depressed areas would take the pressure off areas like the south-east where there is a shortage of housing and make better use of the nation’s existing stock.
    A “smart growth” approach might well involve leaving some brownfield sites at remote locations for something other than development – because we urgently need to cut the amount we drive in this country.
    Road transport generates more than a quarter of our greenhouse gas emissions and that’s a very good reason why we need to concentrate development, where possible, in existing urban areas and that will mean making best use of most brownfield land.
    We also need to stop squandering our precious undeveloped land which provides all of our water, most of our food, timber, outdoor leisure, biodiversity etc., plus all the valuable intangibles the countryside offers.
    Brownfield-first must be a central part of any “smart growth” approach. It’s not “brownfield-only” or “all brownfield must be developed”. But it did work very well and we need it back.

    • 4 Peter Shirley May 15, 2014 at 6:07 pm

      There is a lot to say on this topic but for now I will just say that for ecosystem services (your last but one paragraph) brownfields make a big contribution. You mention biodiversity in the list – in the West Midlands one brownfield site is a Special Protection Area, far better for wildlife than 90% of greenfield sites.

      • 5 sspiers May 16, 2014 at 10:37 am

        Response from Shaun Spiers.

        Peter, I don’t think there should be any major disagreement between environmental groups on the issue of brownfield land. No one is advocating building on all brownfield land. But 21 wildlife and countryside groups supported a sequential, brownfield-first approach in Wildlife and Countryside Link’s response to the NPPF consultation in 2011 – Those signing up ranged from CPRE, the Ramblers and the Open Spaces Society to the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB and Buglife.

        The absence of a sequential approach which directs development to the most appropriate places is not safeguarding biodiversity, but it is certainly unnecessarily degrading and destroying countryside.

        The most relevant paragraphs (from p. 9 of the response) follow.

        “Link recommends that the NPPF should ensure that a sequential brownfield-first approach is applied at all levels by including clear criteria and measures to guide the identification, allocation and release of land for housing and other development. There should be no presumption that all previously developed sites are suitable for development and sustainability principles should continue to apply. Some sites, for example, are in areas
        poorly served by public transport. In a small but significant number of other cases the current definition of ‘previously development land’ incorporates areas of habitat of great importance for biodiversity; if the sequential approach is to be retained the definition must be amended to exclude these habitats. This should serve to maintain current protection in
        PPS7 and PPS9 respectively….

        “The widespread loss of biodiversity from the countryside has highlighted the increasing importance of some previously developed land for its wildlife value. In some cases, the application of current policies is resulting in the endangered species now largely restricted to ‘previously developed land’ being put at risk of extinction. This problem was recognised in the 2003 England Biodiversity Strategy which set the objective of ‘Key brownfield biodiversity conserved through site protection, mitigation and habitat creation.’7

        “The Government has already changed the definition of ‘brownfield’ to exclude private residential gardens. We recommend that the definition of ‘previously developed land’ in the Glossary should be amended to exclude a number of key sites for biodiversity (see Annex). The amended definition should also exclude mineral workings and landfill, and spoil dredging or ash disposal. Currently only mineral and landfill sites where there is existing provision for restoration are excluded from the definition.”

  4. 6 Peter Shirley May 16, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    Point taken Shaun, thanks. I spent a lot of my time with the Wildlife Trusts inculcating this sort of thinking into an organisation which once had difficulty espousing urban nature conservation values. I spent all day Wednesday with Natural England and others (inc. Buglife, London WT and the Land Trust) discussing these issues, including the difficulty of defining brownfields. As far as habitat goes Open Mosaic Habitat seems favourite right now.
    The fact remains that a lot of countryside is hostile to wildlife, but I appreciate that other considerations apply. One of the problems is entrenched views in the minds of developers, politicians and others. This was wonderfully exemplified when John Prescott set up the Urban Task Force to look at these and other issues. CPRE had a seat on this (no problem with that) but the urban wildlife movement did not (definite problem with that).
    The debate will go on, but needs to be framed in a more nuanced context. (You might agree with me that the elephant in the green or brown field is the desperate need for more house building).

    • 7 sspiers May 17, 2014 at 7:44 am

      Thanks, Peter, I don’t think we’re really divided on this. When CPRE says ‘brownfield first’, we mean ‘brownfield first provided it’s appropriate, in the sense agreed with 20 other organisations in Link’. But that’s a bit of a mouthful.

      I also agree that we desperately need more house building. But we won’t get it just by releasing more greenfield land. That will just result in bigger profits for house builders and more car journeys. We can accommodate the majority of the new housing we need, at least in the current planning periods, on appropriate brownfield land, which will be better socially and environmentally than building in the countryside. And as we build, let’s safeguard and promote nature everywhere, in the countryside and in the town.

      CPRE would be mad to want simply to cram everyone into towns in order to protect the countryside. It wouldn’t work. Those who could leave, would. We want beautiful, green towns and cities where people want to live, and from which they’re easily able to get into beautiful, green countryside. That’s our modest vision.

  5. 8 Roland McKinney May 17, 2014 at 10:46 am

    Two comments that have not been discussed above.
    Firstly, planning regulations do not consider at all the efficiency of land use, which they should, given that England has a very high population density, but our cities have relatively low population densities. What I mean by this is that, for example, we should copy our continental cousins and put car parks underground, underneath new developments – where this can be done. This should be the default planning condition. This frees up land for green spaces, instead of car parks. Second, we have to increase housing density, but introduce much better design. It is quite incredible that the new high rise buildings in central London are in great demand, even at very high prices, but it seems impossible to design and build high rise apartment buildings for affordable/social housing. How can this be so? I also mean by efficiency of land use the presence or absence of infrastructure. In very general terms, infrastructure is in city centres, not in the countryside. London is having an enormous amount spent on infrastructure, but nothing is being spent on infrastructure in the Green Belt around it – but this is where developers want to put new developments. Build where the infrastructure is, especially where it is being upgraded.

    Secondly, the NPPF creates a Humpty Dumpty world of planning. Take the requirement for a 5 year housing supply. This is easy to manipulate by developers and local authorities; all they have to do is hold their sites back, even those with planning permission. Then there will be much more pressure for large green field developments. Why would they do this? – in the case of developers, that’s obvious; but for local authorities it means more income, from New Homes Bonus and Community Infrastructure Levy. Perverse, or what? Or another example – the government want to encourage using brownfield first, so they take away the need for CIL on brownfield developments. But the local authority then lose an income, so now they have a financial inducement to prefer green field development! So what do they do? The government should have introduced a payment scheme to replace CIL on brownfield if their aim was really for brownfield first. As for brownfield not being financially viable in London and the South East – get real. As one example, Berkeley Homes made a 22% profit on each home they sold in 2012/13, not including profits on land transactions. There is plenty of money in this level of margin to fund land remediation where required, unless contamination is severe, in which case there should be a central remediation fund (paid for by a windfall tax on developers) for land remediation prior to development.

    We desperately need a planning system that predicts and counteracts perverse outcomes; and that follows though to ensure any that any that remain are eliminated as quickly as possible.

  6. 9 Alan George Cotterell September 21, 2017 at 2:15 pm

    ‘CIL’ has effectively killed off many small developers (ie. 5 homes or less ), since it ensures that small ‘brown-field ‘sites are un-viable no matter what anyone says!
    Locally its about £35k per home before digging any footings and after paying planning fees! How does that encourage the use of such small sites? Unless of course that CIL is added to the end cost, making these homes even more unaffordable! That is exactly what Sajid Javid has done, thus enhancing the large builders who end up building too rapidly with poor quality outcomes hence discontented new home owners having to deal with endless snagging problems to resolve. Is this what we really want because thats whats happening. Case in point a 3200sqft new build nearby was charged £3,600 under Section 106, then ‘CIL’ was introduced and that house today would have to pay £35,000 a ten-fold increase on a small site. That’s what happens when 400LGA’s lobby C&LG ministers to get CIL from every builder except those who conform to the new self-build rules of course. Its extortion for planning approval nothing less! NB. Quite often suitable infrastructure already exists near such sites so what ever happened to central government funding and community charge monies for infrastructure? Where’s that money gone?

    ‘CIL’ is a complete horlicks on small sites!

    AC. Ipswich

    • 10 Shaun Spiers September 21, 2017 at 2:29 pm

      Thanks for the interesting comment. I should say that I no longer work for CPRE, but I hope they still monitor comments on this blog!

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