Brownfield First?

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‘Land use classification systems are not the sort of thing to make you popular at parties (believe me, I’ve checked), but they have a direct impact on what we can build where in this country, and on why we don’t seem to have enough homes’. So says Jonn Elledge, editor of CityMetric (the New Stateman’s cities blog). But here at Ridgemount, we love nothing more than getting in to the nitty gritty of niche issues.

On 24 July, the Government published its long-awaited review of the National Planning Policy Framework (dubbed ‘NPPF2’). This documentsets the direction of housing policy within the UK and governs the delivery of new housing. Although there were no major surprises in the revised framework, there is one amendment which appears slight yet will have huge implications on the number of new homes that can be delivered.

Previously, national planning guidance said that new development should only occur on the Green Belt if there were ‘very special circumstances’ (VSC) and developers would often use this clause to argue that a shortage of housing within the local area was indeed a VSC. The 2018 document however tightens the policy on Green Belt further, requiring councils to ‘exhaust all other reasonable options for development before looking to alter a Green Belt boundary’. This means that all brownfield land must have been used, density increased where practical and neighbouring councils approached to help meet housing need on their land before development on the Green Belt may be permitted (and even then it is unlikely to be allowed).

This ‘brownfield first’ policy may be popular with voters but it is ineffective in meeting the country’s housing crisis.

Whilst it is not unreasonable on paper to expect all previously developed land to be utilised before Green Belt land, in reality many existing brownfield sites are contaminated or not near any local transport infrastructure which makes them unsuitable for development. A good example of this is Barking Riverside, which was first floated as potential site that could accommodate up to 10,000 homes in the 1990s. However, the development is still not complete and a new London Overground station will not open to passengers until 2021.

Many out-of-town residential developments depend on new transport infrastructure being provided which leads to a chicken-and-egg situation: new transport links cannot be justified without sufficient passenger numbers (which come from new housing), but a planning application for new homes will often not be approved if there are inadequate transport links.

Just as not all brownfield land is suitable for development, there are also not insignificant amounts of Green Belt land which would benefit from development. Quirks of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act means that there are anomalies throughout the country, e.g. car parks and unattractive scrub land which are classed as Green Belt. Instead of operating a blanket ‘no Green Belt development’ policy, a strategic review of Green Belt land, undertaken at local authority level, to identify areas of suitable brownfield land within the Green Belt should be undertaken. This would go some way to help the Government achieve its ambitious aim to build 300,000 homes per year by the mid-2020s.

Sacrificing less valuable areas of Green Belt has support from many quarters, including somewhat surprisingly the ‘Honourable Member for the 18th Century’, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP. Social housing providers such as Clarion and Peabody are also in favour, as is the right-of-centre think tank the Adam Smith Institute as well as campaigning groups PricedOut and London YIMBY.

If we are to be serious about tackling the housing crisis, we need to step back and take a critical look at our outdated planning system. A rational approach, rather than ‘Not In My Back Yard’ would go a long way to ease the pressure, especially for the numerous local authorities who are already struggling to meet their housing need because they are constrained by an inability to use suitable Green Belt land for new development.

 
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Marian Craig
Account Executive, Ridgemount PR

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