Is brown the new green?

Our experts discuss if brownfield building is the right solution to help ease the housing shortage and what this mean for the future of greenbelt sites?

Councils are being told they must protect greenbelt land, and to help them do just that the Government has launched new planning guidance which urges councils to priorities the thousands of brownfield sites that are available for development.

So what does this mean for the construction industry?

Jeff Nelson is operations director at London Safety Clean

“When it comes to brownfield development, at best we’re being misled and at worst we’re being swindled. We need both brownfield sites and greenfield sites if we are truly going to tackle the nation’s housing shortage.

“The loosening of regulations will only result in half-hearted investment by developers and a limited increase in employment opportunities for those in the industry. However, due to the prohibitive costs associated with brownfield development, barriers to entry will remain far too high for all except the very wealthiest of private developers. We will see more jobs in the industry, but not on the scale we need, and not as quickly as we need them.

“We should also be cautious about removing the regulatory power of local councils altogether. Unchecked developers could leave us saddled with low-quality housing, an especially unwelcome prospect when we consider that many brownfield sites are contaminated with hazardous materials. If developers start cutting corners, it will be bad for the construction industry, bad for the homeowners and bad for the economy.

“A better solution would be to charge owners of vacant brownfield sites with business rates. Owners would then have to make an immediate decision, either build on the site or sell to someone who will. Jobs in construction and site clearance would rise, as would the building and housing supply. Combined with a reclassification of some greenfield sites, we would get the ambitious solution to the housing crisis that our country needs.”

Kristian Niemietz is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs

“Nick Boles was the Gorbachev of the UK’s land use planning system, and the National Planning Policy Framework was the housing sector’s equivalent of Glasnost and Perestroika. But what is happening now is as if Leonid Brezhnev had come back from the dead in the late 1980s to oust Gorbachev, and turn back the clock.

“The new planning guidance to strengthen greenbelt protection will, once again, return power to the Nimbys. Mole Valley District Council in Surrey has already revoked a plan which would have allowed some much-needed housebuilding on the greenbelt. Expect more of this.

“Make no mistake: This is not about redirecting development from greenfield to brownfield sites. It is about blocking development altogether. ‘Brownfield’ has become the Nimby lobby’s battle cry, their favourite all-purpose excuse.

“However, housebuilding is already heavily skewed towards brownfield sites, and has been long before encouraging brownfield redevelopment became an official policy goal. But there is simply not enough of it in the right places. Most of the brownfield land the Nimby lobby keeps referring to exists only in their imagination, and the problem with imaginary brownfield sites is that you can only build imaginary houses on them.”

Michael Jefferson is managing director of Seddon Homes Limited

“All of the political parties seem to support the need for the construction of 200k+ new homes per year but to achieve this we need to ensure that enough land is made available in locations that people want to live and work, whether that is in the green belt or on brownfield sites depends on demand and land availability.

“In 2014 approximately 80% of the new homes Seddon built for sale were constructed on brownfield land. These sites are, however, in many cases inherently complex, with issues surrounding viability and planning. The Government’s revitalised approach will therefore hopefully enable us to work more closely with land owners, local authorities and the HCA as we continue to develop quality new build homes on brownfield sites. However, with many sites still unviable in terms of remediation costs, we would encourage for more funding to be made available to bring them forward.

“No one is suggesting that we raid the countryside to build new homes. The development of green belt land is at its lowest since rates began to be recorded in the late 1980s. Over a third of England is protected from development as part of green belt policy, which dates back to the 1940s. Many of these green spaces are rightly protected, but in certain areas the need to build is paramount to ensure the long term viability of communities and inevitably green belt boundaries may need to be reviewed.

“We need to be certain we are not protecting poor-quality green belt areas at the expense of high-quality amenity space. As a country, we need to review the green belt boundaries and look at multiple classifications of green belt. We could rank sites from super green belt to poor green belt, as many areas certainly aren’t the picture of green rolling countryside many imagine the policy is designed to protect.

“Ultimately each community needs to ensure that sufficient viable and deliverable sites are made available to ensure that we can deliver the new housing the nation needs.”

David Pridmore is a partner at Watson Burton LLP

“In the current housing market, it is difficult to argue against the principle of building on brownfield land as this provides a sustainable alternative. And yet the political agenda still has some way to go when addressing the associated commercial issues, with many brownfield sites located in areas where end sales values are low. Couple this with the high costs surrounding clean-up and the development viability for many house builders simply doesn’t stack up.

“With this in mind, it’s key that building professionals come together to start thinking of more innovative solutions to drive down clean-up costs. This may be through greater funding from the Homes and Communities Agency, or relaxing the amount of red tape surrounding planning rules on regeneration sites, for example. We also need to do more to communicate to the public and would-be homeowners around the perception that leafy suburban sites are aspirational.

“The potential benefits in addressing the viability gap are huge. In combatting some of these issues, we can clean up more brownfield land which, in turn, goes some way in improving the current housing shortage and kick starting regeneration.

“In my view, brownfield sites alone cannot deliver all the housing numbers needed. Rather, a more holistic view is needed, although whether we ever truly achieve this with a political system so focused on the short term is questionable. However recent comments from Sir David Higgins and the Government recognising that new transport links across the country could be key to unlocking some viability issues are very promising. Hopefully this signals the beginning of a wider dialogue that highlights some of the concerns with redeveloping many brownfield sites, as well as offering some solutions.”

Andrew Stoddart is a property investor and MD of VIDA Architecture

“The redevelopment of brownfield land to accommodate the rising demand for housing is a good approach - but one which does not go far enough and is impossible to implement in isolation if government targets to provide 4.4 million new homes are to be met by 2016.

“While welcome, the government’s plans fail to acknowledge that developers may incur costs when preparing brownfield sites for development. Such expenditure will have to be reflected in the land value to ensure the site’s commerciality and viability – with the cost ultimately being passed onto the homebuyer.

“The realistic threat of interest rates rising within the next 12 months, combined with average wages remaining the same pre-recession, reinforces the importance of new developments being affordable for developers and purchasers.

“These plans do not address the main obstacle facing developers - the planning process and how councils block developments instead of granting them. I hope that the new government financial incentives will encourage councils to be more efficient and grant developments - whether on brownfield or greenbelt land - if suitable.

“While new guidance has been issued to councils to safeguard their respective greenbelt sites, there needs to be a process to enable them to redevelop suitable greenbelt land such as old hospitals or research centres.”

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