A decade ago, building on previously developed (or “brownfield”) land was all the rage. Planning policies directed development towards such sites, and in a buoyant property market, developers were prepared to take them on. There was even some public money available to get particularly complex sites off the ground.
Then came the financial crash of 2008. Brownfield development in many areas stalled overnight.
New planning policy from a new government in 2012 (the NPPF) effectively allowed for greenfield developments once again, in those areas where there was an identified need for new development, but the local authority could not provide alternative locations to build.
Fast forward to 2016, and most Councils are finally catching up with the publication of a Local Plan and list of sites they would prefer to see developed. Armed with an up to date Local Plan, Councils can once again say no to the development of unpopular (often greenfield) sites. At least in theory.
The trouble is, Councils not only have to allocate a list of sites on paper, they also have to demonstrate, year on year, that they are being developed at a sufficient rate.
Meanwhile developers, armed with a choice of greenfield sites from a few years of a permissive planning regime, are not surprisingly reluctant to start building on brownfield sites with the extra risks entailed, particularly in the absence of any public subsidy.
We are therefore left with a mismatch. Many of the new Local Plans allocate new development in the same old quarries, pits and derelict factory sites that have been earmarked for development for years, but which have failed to get out of the ground. Can we realistically expect them to be developed now?
If things carry on as they are, possibly not, but with a little more commitment and creative thinking, maybe we can. Brownfield sites aren’t always as unviable as they may seem. In some instances there are cost savings in comparison to greenfield sites. Road, electricity, gas and water infrastructure is often already in place, and sites are usually pre-levelled, for example.
It is the risk of the unknown, and the cost of remediation, which so often discourages developers from tackling brownfield sites. With a comparatively small amount of financial assistance from public bodies to help investigate risk and remediate contamination, many sites could be unlocked for redevelopment.
Flexibility on 106 agreement payments (for example lower affordable housing thresholds for brownfield sites) could also help to incentivise development.
Finally, greater re-assurance that planning permission –and a viable development scheme- is likely to be forthcoming, would also encourage developers to buy and draw up proposals for brownfield sites. Previously developed sites often bring with them additional complexity and uncertainty –archaeology, ecology, flood risk- developers don’t mind paying for the extra surveys in the long run, but are reluctant to do so up-front before they even know whether a development scheme of any description is likely to be achievable.
It is with relief, therefore, that we hear of the Government’s latest proposals to encourage brownfield development. This year’s Housing and Planning Act proposed that each local authority keep a register of brownfield sites, upon each of which ‘permission in principle’ for housebuilding is effectively granted. A new £3 billion home building fund is also to be made available, allowing developers access to low interest finance to help them with up-front development costs.
These measures are a step in the right direction. More action is needed.
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