From Wasted Space to Living Spaces: new CPRE report

Towards the end of last year, at a fringe meeting at Conservative Party conference, I made a bland point about the desirability of building on brownfield land rather than in the countryside. I said that there was enough brownfield land in England to build 1.5 million new homes, a figure taken from a CPRE report by Green Balance and based on the most recently available government figures.

I thought that figure was uncontroversial, but the then planning minister, Nick Boles disagreed vehemently – I never found out why – and earlier this year the Government quoted a potential figure of 200,000 new homes. There is a big gap between 200,000 and 1.5 million, so CPRE commissioned research from the University of the West of England (UWE) to try to establish a figure on which everyone can agree. Sometimes it is necessary for charities to do the Government’s work for it.

UWE’s report has now been published, co-authored with CPRE’s Paul Miner, and it estimates that there is at least enough suitable brownfield land in England to build 976,000 homes, including 405,000 on land with either outline or detailed planning permission.

This is a very conservative calculation and I do not think anyone reading the report in full could doubt that there is likely to be more suitable land out there. Importantly, the report shows that the stock of suitable brownfield is replenished more quickly than it is used: brownfield land is a stream, not a reservoir. It also shows that half the potential for new homes on brownfield land is in the high demand areas of London and the south east.

What it cannot show is the potential of very small sites, many of which have been highlighted in CPRE’s #wasteofspace campaign. We argued some years ago for better urban capacity studies to capture details of sites of one hectare or less (‘small raindrops make big puddles’) but since that 2007 report, Untapped Potential, there has been a bonfire of statistics, and local authorities no longer have to report the availability of any brownfield sites to the National Land Use Database. One of our recommendations is to reinstate proper reporting and make the data more readily available. The Housing and Planning Minister, Brandon Lewis, has welcomed our report, and I hope he will agree to this recommendation.

But maximising the potential of brownfield land in order to save countryside and improve our towns and cities will take more than accurate reporting. The report makes a number of detailed recommendations, but what is needed above all is a strong push from government at all levels to focus development wherever possible on brownfield land.

This involves the planning system – we want a return to the sequential test, with greenfield land used only when it is clear that there is no suitable alternative – but it will also require investment and tax reform. Luke Burroghs’s recent CPRE report, Removing obstacles to brownfield development, has some useful ideas on this agenda. There is a cost to remediating some brownfield land, but as a recent Durham University study shows, there is a cost to public health in leaving it derelict.

Finally, there has been some criticism of CPRE’s brownfield campaign from an unlikely quarter, fellow environmentalists. Some argue that we should develop ‘sterile, monocultural farmland’ and save derelict sites for plants and wildlife. CPRE would prefer to make the farmland less sterile – we do, after all, need to eat – but we are not trying to develop every scrap of brownfield land for housing. It can have plenty of other purposes, including employment and amenity, and the report makes clear (pp. 4, 23-4) that special consideration should be given to brownfield land that is rich in nature.

The report is all about developing suitable brownfield land. There is enough for almost five years’ supply even if we increase output to 200,000 houses a year. That does not mean that we should never develop greenfield sites. CPRE has never said ‘no’ to any development on greenfield sites. But if we stopped needlessly wasting good land in our towns and cities, there would be much less pressure on the countryside.

20 Responses to “From Wasted Space to Living Spaces: new CPRE report”

  1. 1 Michael Monk November 24, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    What is also frustrating about the 5 years supply issue is that although the Government imposes a duty on councils to co-operate with their neighbours on planning matters, this does not mean that some councils struggling to find the required 5 years can rely upon neighbours who have a surplus. Thus South Cambridgeshire is being penalised for not having sufficient while its neighbours in Huntingdonshire and Cambridge City have more than the minimum. Now, if there was proper strategic planning…….

  2. 2 christopheraspen November 25, 2014 at 7:55 am

    It Would make more sense to redevelop inner cities and derelict buildings and neighbourhoods before jumping on green land .so many inner areas of our cities are so disgusting …..England is known for great architecture and nature but also horrible development ,think ecological,environmental ,cultural instead of economics

  3. 3 andrew needham November 25, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    NLUD data is very important – but it seems to have an uncertain future:-

    This statistical release is intended to present a record of all previously developed land and buildings in England that may be available for development, whether vacant, derelict, or still in productive use. The rate of return from local authorities for 2012 was low at around 50%. This raw, site-level data reported to the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) by local authorities has been collated into the above site list with no validation. Due to the limited response, analyses and reports were not compiled. In the interests of openness and transparency HCA is releasing currently held NLUD-PDL data.

    Being on the dataset does not necessarily mean that a site is available for development. The data provided should be treated with caution. No indication of potential constraints to development is factored into the figures; for example flood risk and contamination could rule out certain types of development such as housing or employment floor space. Further viability considerations such as location and local market conditions are also important in interpreting the data.

    NLUD-PDL data for 2013 has not been commissioned.

    • 4 Paul Miner November 27, 2014 at 8:57 am

      To add to Andrew’s point, some will have seen that the Government did publish the returns it had from local authorities to the National Land Use Database since 2011, following requests from CPRE.

      As Andrew points out, first, the Government did no analysis of these figures. Second, it did not request data from local authorities in 2013. See

      CPRE’s report, of which I was a co-author as Shaun mentions, has aimed to address the first point and provide an analysis of the data that we were able to obtain from local authorities. On the second, we have recommended that the Government renews efforts to keep NLUD up to date by requesting annual returns from local authorities. We recognise that there is a wider climate of public spending retrenchment so the Government should look at whether the process can be combined with other work such as Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessments or Authority Monitoring Reports.

  4. 5 Lawrence November 26, 2014 at 9:43 am

    Can I make one point completely lost on the countryside lobby.

    Life expectancy has increased 10% in just 30 years which, shock-horror, creates 10% extra need for homes EVERYWHERE.

    To sustain the same number of families within an rural area therefore requires 10% bigger housing stock. Basic geometry tells us a village only needs to increase in diameter by 4.9% to increase it’s volume by 10%.

    Freezing rural housing stock and ensuring it’s only owned by ageing retirees reduces the local population and turnover of residents. This of course means local jobs, shops and services continue to be run-down due to lack of demand.

    So why is “protecting” rural England laser-focussed on restricting new homes to expensive and grotty parts of cities? The focus should be on pro-actively ensuring high-quality, low-cost development wherever there’s demand.

    Brownfield vs Greenfield is a totally facile argument designed to stir-up local NIMBY campaigns, completely ignoring underlying societal issues that the public should be educated about.

    • 6 Michael Monk November 26, 2014 at 10:29 am

      Lawrence makes a good point about the need for small numbers of additional homes to keep a village alive; we should remember that a good proportion of the housing need derives from increasingly smaller household size.When I was working I tried to introduce a local plan policy whereby if a small village demonstrated a static or falling population then a small group of houses could be permitted rather than development being limited to “frontage infill of up to three houses”. The Local Plan Inspector did not like it and so it failed. I still think there is an argument for small scale sympathetic “organic” development in villages. The problem we have experienced here in Cambridgeshire is that small scale developments seem to consist entirely of large detached houses out of affordable reach of local young families. The only instances of securing more modest homes has been large scale housing estates plonked on the edge of villages destroying the character of the village, its setting and the open countryside.
      However, I do not see that this issue relates to the brownfield v greenfield issue. We MUST recycle our land not just gobble up countryside as if it were an infinite resource. And as for grotty parts of our cities, these are just the areas where we need regeneration. It CAN work – 50 years ago who would have wanted to live in London’s Docklands, Bristol’s Floating Harbour area or Salford Quays?

      • 7 christopheraspenChris November 26, 2014 at 11:11 am

        Why the South East all the time ,of course its economics of london and the desirable of living around there which puts the prices up .take the pressure of that region and put it up north,make North of England liveable again

      • 8 Lawrence November 26, 2014 at 11:41 am

        Thanks for the reply. I agree pro-active encouragement of steady small-scale development (the way housing was built long ago) is the solution.

        People have gotten used to no homes being built at all and are naturally upset when a big developer appears once every 5 years to force through an estate. This has been caused by restrictive, confrontational planning and not going to be solved by turbo-charging it.

        High land prices mean only larger, more profitable homes can be built by big developers. Add on the cost of cleaning up brownfield sites and they become non-viable.

        Restricting land supply further can only make this worse and the focus should be on making land cheaper. The only restrictions needed should aim to re-engineer the industry into building high-quality individual homes.

        Personally I could easily fund the building of a nice home but the possibility of obtaining a scrap of land is beyond fantastical.

        Campaigning near me absolutely does boil down the the simplistic “save greenbelt, only brownfield” message heavily promoted by the CPRE, even if it’s completely irrelevant to the local situation. Therefore I can’t help feel public opinion is being manipulated.

        Think you’re lapsing into hyperbole there when in the medium term we only need 0.5% of the country to meet demand. Yes there are good examples of regeneration but Ebbsfleet has been stalled for 20 years without massive public subsidy.

      • 9 christopheraspenChris November 26, 2014 at 3:43 pm

        The more developed South East the more cramped it becomes…

  5. 10 Lawrence November 26, 2014 at 10:18 am

    One more thing to take issue with is the assumption that sites technically defined as “brownfield” do not support wildlife and should be wiped out. The geography and diversity of many sites makes them home to many rare species:

    Many former sites of human activity now have SSSI status. Near me, the Greywell Tunnel at the Western end of the Basingstoke Canal has the largest colony of roosting bats in Britain.

    • 11 sspiers November 26, 2014 at 10:32 am

      Lawrence, the point about biodiversity is addressed in the last two paragraphs of my blog, as well as in the report itself and in earlier blogs.
      Shaun Spiers

      • 12 Lawrence November 26, 2014 at 7:19 pm

        Apologies for not reading this piece in detail, I was reacting to the press and political reaction, which again centred on brownfield being a magic bullet.

        Given the admission that almost half of this land already had planning in progress and greenfield development is already at a record low, why keep flogging a dead horse?

        The CPRE is rightly unhappy with how greenfield development is currently achieved by big builders and yet I don’t see much sign of an alternative long-term framework that will deliver the volumes needed. That means at least 200,000 per year for 20 years until population peaks.

        If the CPRE wishes to heavily criticise all other proposals for sustainable ongoing development then it could at least have its own. The vast majority of this inevitable population growth is in the 60+ age group so simply building London upwards is not a solution either, that’s not where retired folk want to live!

  6. 13 Richard P Beauchamp November 27, 2014 at 3:40 pm

    I agree with much of the debate but not that population growth is inevitable!

    Sadly the pressure on our school building, midwifery services and the recent recruitment drive for Health Visitors suggests the population is booming at the younger age bracket.

    • 14 Lawrence November 28, 2014 at 9:23 am

      The number of births is little higher than the early 90s:

      Here’s the “population pyramid” and you can see by far the biggest growth in the next 25 years is over 65s, roughly a 50% increase:

      Seems pretty inevitable to me unless you’ve got a plan to stop people living longer?

      If they have no option but to hang onto large family homes we are in for a disastrous drop in living standards for working people, with 2/3 generations cramped together in the oldest, smallest homes in Western Europe.

      • 15 sspiers November 28, 2014 at 11:04 am

        Re ‘the oldest, smallest homes in Western Europe’, we are indeed building cramped homes, which is why CPRE has supported a return to decent space standards. But it is also true, to quote Danny Dorling’s ‘All that is Solid’ – reviewed in an earlier blog: – that because people extended their houses, ‘the number of rooms and bedrooms per person in Britain has not just been rising, but that rise… has recently accelerated’.

        It is true that we are building too few homes, but it is also true that our housing stock is less and less equally shared out. We could build lots of houses in the countryside and still not meet housing need.

        Shaun Spiers

      • 16 Lawrence November 28, 2014 at 12:18 pm

        I’m absolutely not saying build only in the countryside. I’m demonstrating that housing need is evenly distributed geographically, and demographically it’s far from solved by the “build brownfield flats in cities for youngsters” narrative.

        Doing that alone is an equally flawed solution. Biasing our housing stock even further towards city flats and conversions is totally contrary to the ageing demographics above.

        Heavier annual taxation of land/property in place of Stamp Duty is an essential part of the solution but I don’t see the CPRE giving that equal billing in campaigns to brownfield use? The impact on limiting long-term land use could be an order of magnitude higher but there’s a massive conflict of interest for CPRE members so it’ll never happen.

        In my parents cul-de-sac there are four homes with a total of 13 unoccupied bedrooms. Absolutely barking mad. In fact, one of those couples leads the local anti-development campaigning and they’ve just bought a local home as an BTL investment to cash-in on the lack of building. You couldn’t make it up.

      • 17 Richard P Beauchamp November 28, 2014 at 2:28 pm

        It should concern us all that our numbers are ‘booming’ at both ends of our lifespan. There should be no need for competition between them. MORI polls have shown that about 70 to 80 percent of us believe we are too numerous in this country and world wide. CPRE recognises that our constituency – the Environment (rural England) is impacted by population increase. Where it comes from is at least government business to address if it has the will to do so. The population pyramid shows more zero year olds to five year olds, assuming they live the healthy lives we hope they will, it indicates big issues to address in the future.

      • 18 Lawrence November 28, 2014 at 4:45 pm

        Rising population is nothing new, look back 200 years:

        Population isn’t booming at the younger end at all, women haven’t averaged 2 children each since the baby boom. We are just currently seeing an echo of that boom but the overall trend (peaks and gaps between) is down. I’d expect a prolonged economic downturn will see it drop off again.

        Frustrating that the generations that benefited massively from building from the 30s to 70s are collectively saying to their own offspring:

        “Get stuffed, you’re not getting the infrastructure you need, we’re arbitarily freezing the country in the 1970s, we’re going to hang on to our nest-egg properties, charge you a fortune for them or bleed you dry in rent until you’re too old to get a mortgage, plus we’re making building as difficult as humanly possible to protect our view and house price… Oh and by the way, it’s all your fault for even existing and you’ve got it easy”

  7. 19 spike November 28, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    Hi Shaun, glad the last couple of paragraphs has addressed my own concerns about the #wasteofspace campaign, though I’m concerned these finer points might be lost on some because of the broad brushstroke of the campaign. I still think it boils it all a little too simplistically to greenfield v brownfield, which lends itself to a country v city debate. My worry is that this feeds into the NIMBYish attitude of some, and that this will promote a notion that more housing (particularly cheap and affordable housing) should only be crammed into already densely populated areas, keeping the countryside to the select few who are fortunate enough to live there.

  8. 20 Richard P Beauchamp November 28, 2014 at 11:41 pm

    200 years is a short period in the human time frame. In that time the population really has ‘boomed’ and the environmental impact exceeded that in all the previous millennia.
    I am pleased that Shaun has stressed that brown field has been and can be recycled. I look forward, beyond our life-time, to when durable well insulated buildings are the norm and population has plateaued. Then the recycling can slow down and greenfield can be as safe as we used to think greenbelt was!

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