Is brownfield alone enough to solve the housing crisis?

The short answer is no! The reasons behind this are varied. In an article in City Metric earlier this week, John Elledge dispels the myth that building on brownfield land alone could solve the housing crisis. While superficially attractive, he argued, there simply isn’t enough brownfield land to deliver the homes we need.

Our Associate Director Richard Parry responded to the article with a letter, which has been published today, highlighting some additional points relating to the commercial challenges associated with bringing forward brownfield land:

[…] Brownfield sites are often amongst the most technically challenging and expensive sites to bring forward. In the case of a former industrial site, there could be a century’s worth of chemicals and unpleasant contamination lingering in the soil. There are (rightly) very strict protocols and standards for cleaning up such land. These can be eye-wateringly expensive and extremely time-consuming, which can in turn have serious impacts on a project’s viability.

For instance, a heavily contaminated site with a history of chemical use – of which there are several coming forward for regeneration across the country – might require the stripping of several inches of topsoil from the entire development parcel, and replacement with clean earth from elsewhere. This is an extremely long and costly engineering process.  

The time and financial cost has real impacts on the nature, and timescales, of a regeneration. It is not uncommon to see brownfield redevelopment proposals on former industrial land come forward with lower than average levels of affordable housing, due to the impact on viability. Any ‘brownfield first’ policy would necessarily involve lower rates of delivery of affordable housing.

Additionally, the extra time taken to deliver a brownfield site (demolition, remediation, etc.) should not be underestimated. Such factors can add years to the lifespan of a project. To a committed member of the Guildford Greenbelt Group or similar anti-greenfield campaign, I’m sure this seems a price worth paying. But this neglects the very human, and immediate, impact of the housing crisis: the undersupply of housing restricts aspiration and security for countless thousands of people in the present day.

It’s all too easy, even to those of us who work in the housing and planning industry, to think of the housing crisis in abstract terms, a problem of economic models and market incentives to be solved over half a century. As a young(ish) person privately renting a converted garage within commutable distance of London, I can attest to a very real, very present impact on people’s lives. And I’m one of the luckier ones, with a secure job with prospects and a salary that allows me to eke out a deposit for a tiny apartment.

I’ll finish by contrasting the added hurdles of brownfield regeneration with the relative technical ease of a greenfield site. The latter usually has fewer constraints, not being littered with industrial history, and delivery of housing can start soon after the relevant permissions and legal agreements are signed, with no need for complex remediation activity. Of course there’s a cost to developing greenfield sites, which should never be dismissed – but it’s surely a price worth paying given the circumstances.

The YIMBYMPC