'Brownfield first’ is right, but ‘Brownfield only’ will fail

Brownfield-first has long been the mantra of Government and councils across the UK. Of course, this is right. It is appropriate to re-use land, increase density where appropriate, and invest in the vibrancy of our towns and cities.

Last week, the Government announced further proposals to strengthen the brownfield-first approach. Councils which fail to deliver against their housing requirement will be forced to follow a ‘brownfield presumption’, reduce bureaucracy and improve flexibility.

You will find very few land promoters, developers and investors objecting to this approach. It makes sense.

However, in an election year, the message from Government is black and white. In the words of the Prime Minister, writing in The Times on Tuesday, ‘stick with our house-building plan or let Labour tarmac the green belt.’

This sets up a false narrative that brownfield-only is a silver bullet for the housing crisis. The risk, therefore, is we fail to plan for the housing we need in the areas people want to live. We fail to build infrastructure, and we fail to solve the housing crisis.

It’s a fundamental principle of strategic planning that homes should be delivered in the areas people want to live. At Newton LDP, as one of the UK’s leading land, development, and property agencies, we can clearly demonstrate that demand is fierce in rural, suburban and village locations.

Some of our recent deals have involved upwards of 20 bids for consented greenfield sites – including from the UK’s biggest housebuilders. Using our strong relationships across the market, we have been able to complete deals in as little as six weeks.

Even in a challenging market, high-quality housing in the right locations is always in demand.

Not everyone wants to live in towns and cities, but the concept of village life, or even suburban living, is increasingly out of reach for young families. We have failed to adequately meet demand over decades.

If we ignore this problem, we risk blocking a whole generation from the freedom to choose where they live, in a home they want, and in a size and style which suits people’s needs.

The Government’s own estimates, which have been supported by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), claim that brownfield sites could deliver 1 million new homes.

Assuming a national target of 300,000 homes per year, this falls well short of providing a five-year housing land supply for England. Even assuming that all brownfield sites could be delivered over the next Parliament (a big if), there remains a national shortfall of 500,000 homes.

Of course, this also ignores the challenge of delivering brownfield sites. They take longer and are significantly more expensive to bring forward. This means either public sector money is required, or the level of affordable housing provided is often significantly reduced.

Greenfield sites will be required.

Greenfield land can be delivered much more quickly and at Newton LDP we work at the pace the market needs to complete transactions and allow delivery partners to get on site and start building.

Of course, because of lower development costs, greenfield sites can also provide more affordable housing and community infrastructure – usually requiring no public subsidy. It is greenfield sites which can do much of the work towards achieving social and affordable housing targets.

We need a comprehensive strategic approach to planning. Not one which pitches brownfield against greenfield, but one which recognises the role of greenfield and plans accordingly, delivering the infrastructure required and allowing land promoters and developers to do what they do best – deliver new homes.

As a country, or certainly at the regional level, we should be able to take a pragmatic and evidence-led approach which identifies areas of high demand and allocates housing – and associated infrastructure – accordingly.

We need to deliver the high-density housing in city centres, but also lower density living – built around quality green infrastructure – in edge of settlement locations. We need both.

The Government’s latest announcement to put ‘brownfield-first’ does not address this reality. In fact, it compounds the misunderstanding of brownfield land as a solution to the housing crisis.

There is nothing wrong with brownfield-first, but taking a brownfield-only approach is doomed to fail. Instead, a ‘housing-first’ approach is needed. An approach which takes a colder, clearer look at demand and at where people want to live and allows the market to deliver.