The idea that land is a commodity “they ain’t making no more” is not quite true in a sustainable context. The UK has pre-loved brownfield land aplenty. However, putting it to good use is a challenge for developers and an opportunity for innovative companies. Jon Herbert reports.

In the UK, a brownfield site is land that has previously been built on, usually for industrial or commercial purposes. It is derelict and possibly contaminated. England has the scope to build a minimum of 1.1 million new homes on brownfield land, and with new environmental and remediation technologies, up to 1.4 million, according to a report in October 2016. Nevertheless, it remains far more tempting for developers to opt for pristine greenfield land, say MPs on the Commons Communities and Local Government Committee. Developers argue that the cost burden of cleaning the land should belong to the Government. Otherwise, they say, the price tag will have to be passed on to home buyers, putting the affordable home concept into jeopardy. Initiatives to turn this situation around are showing only limited success. Slight improvements recently are seen as blips. The underlying trend is still negative.

Many people dream of a home in the country. However, with England as the world’s third most densely populated advanced nation, and a population projected to grow to 62 million by 2035, many an English person’s future castle will inevitably have to be built on recycled post-industrial acres.

In 1800, only 10% of the English lived in the fast-emerging new towns and cities. Today, that figure has flipped to 90%. And the urban environment is under greater pressure than ever.

A key problem is the massive housing gap that successive Government and business working together have so far failed to close. According to a 2011 Institute of Public Policy Research report, the shortfall by 2025 could be 750,000 homes. However, from a business perspective, it is also worth noting that the global brownfield market is projected to be worth £100 billion by 2222.

Home is where the heart is

While derelict urban areas may not be everyone’s domestic cup of tea, they represent a considerable local social resource. Vacant lots surrounded by hoardings, empty buildings, broken windows, dilapidated facades, boarded-up shops, redundant factories and warehouses, plus car parks that remain “temporary” for many years account for prime wasted ground on a national scale.

Meanwhile, new-build is nibbling away greenbelt that for decades has been held as precious on the periphery of most modern towns and cities. In many cases, greenbelt simply means long journey times and distances for commuting urban workers.

A well-thought-out and implemented brownfield reuse policy would create jobs and economic activity. There are environmental benefits too. According to the Environment Agency (EA), consolidating developments on brownfield land can help to make the best use of existing services such as transport, utilities and waste management. More than that, it can encourage sustainable lifestyles, generating opportunities to recycle forgotten land, cleaning up contaminated dangerous eyesores and playing a key role in supporting the environmental, social and economic regeneration of busy, globally-orientated nations of the type that the UK hopes to project itself. British countryside is legendary. However, it is also under pressure to become more agriculturally efficient.

The start of change

A key date for change was 1988. The Government of today set a national target for 60% of new developments to be built on recovered brownfield land. In 2006, local authorities (LAs) were urged to “take stronger action” to recover brownfield sites. By 2010, it was estimated that 76% of new developments were sited on previously-developed land.

However, the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework did not include a specific brownfield target. Rather, it put the onus on LAs to set appropriate targets for reusing brownfield land “providing that it is not of high environmental value”.

In November 2012, the then Planning Minister, Nick Boles, suggested that more than 388,000 hectares of open countryside would be needed for housing requirements. He added that 9% of England had already been built on and that figure would increase to 12%. Only designated greenbelt areas and existing conurbations would be explicitly protected.

Hunt for brownfield sites

One of the problems of brownfield land reuse is that it is not clear what it is and where it is. On the premise that you can only control what you can measure, a new system was introduced to identify, assess, classify and give preferential incentives for proactive brownfield land redevelopment. The result will be local brownfield land registers.

Again, LAs have been the agencies for delivery and change and the jury is still out as to how effective the hunt and conversion rate has been and continues to be. The final step in the strategy has been to introduce the concept of pre-planning approval. LAs have been charged with introducing Local Development Orders (LDO) for brownfield plots suitable for housing that in effect automatically attract outline planning permission.

Early in 2016, a £1.2 billion fund was announced to prepare suitable sites for contracts over the following five years. The aim was to fast track at least 30,000 new starter homes, plus up to 30,000 “market” homes on new sites by 2020. The Government subsequently said that the funding figure would be larger.

When MPs on the Commons Communities and Local Government Committee recommended a review of England’s National Planning Policy Framework in August 2016, they were critical of the presumed assumption in favour of brownfield land use and insufficient legislative pressure on developers to tackle more challenging brownfield land.

Dark satanic mills

Brownfield land falls into the four categories of vacant, derelict, contaminated and partially-occupied or utilised. Dealing with contamination in particular can be problematic and costly, with threats to human health, harm to fauna and flora, plus polluted groundwater.

For example, remediating sites such as former gas works often means dealing safely with cyanide and phenol. Waste disposal sites may hold significant amounts of cadmium which can work its way into city garden soils. Sewage treatment can create zinc and copper contamination. Mining and smelting can leave arsenic. Oil product wastes are a challenge. Other exotic chemical cocktails need specialist removal, neutralisation and disposal remediation techniques.

A major 2016 EA report, Dealing with Contaminated Land in England, produced by a Cranfield University-led consortium noted that years of proactive identification, inspection and remediation work were still needed to deal with contaminated land in England. Although it only received information from 60% of English councils up to 2013, the report concluded that the main priority for council inspection strategies is assessing human health risks.

Statistics

Land use change statistics released in 2016 show that the proportion of new homes built in England on previously-developed land was continuing to fall in 2014–15, along with residential densities. The percentage of new residential addresses was 57% in 2014–15, compared to 59% in 2013–14; this is sharply down from 2011 and 2010 when the proportions were 68% and 71% respectively. Only 36% were brownfield, compared to 41% in 2013–14; vacant and agricultural greenfield land accounts for 45%.

The average density of new homes is currently 31 dwellings per hectare (dph) compared to 32dph in 2013–14. However, greenfield building stands at just 27dph, slightly up on the 2013–14’s 26dph. Brownfield densities have dipped to 37dph. In 2014–15, 3% of all homes were on greenbelt. In 2014–15. 8% of new homes were within high flood-risk areas, compared to 7% in 2013–14.

Pioneering councils

Pioneering councils were given the job in March 2016 of bringing forward derelict and underused land for new homes; 73 English councils are piloting new brownfield registers to provide house builders with up-to-date publicly available data on all local sites.

The registers allow communities to draw attention to local sites, including those that could attract business investment, and ramps up the Government pledge for one million more homes with planning permission in place on 90% of suitable brownfield sites.

Pilot registers are also designed to help inform future government policy, plus the operation of registers themselves which become mandatory for all councils under the Housing and Planning Bill which received Royal Assent in May 2016.

The Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE) has compared 53 brownfield land registers against council submissions to the National Land Use Database and says this shows a 50% increase in potential development sites; the proportion with planning permission has risen from 41% to 62%.

The CPRE also notes a significant increase in small brownfield sites. This means that a minimum of 11% more homes could be built on brownfield land. The CPRE’s conclusion is that there is “a general ability to meet five-year housing land supply targets almost solely through brownfield sites”. It produced the figures that there is scope for 1.1 million to 1.4 million new homes.

World market

For an outwards looking UK, there could be global brownfield opportunities too. The world environmental remediation market should be worth £100 billion by 2022, according to research company MarketsandMarkets. This would involve expansion at a compound annual growth rate of 7.62% a year from 2016 to 2022. Optimism is based on the large number of worldwide government initiatives to tackle environmental protection and pollution control.

The groundwater remediation is likely to be a priority, in part due to gasoline, oil and chemical contamination which in many cases stem from wastewater disposal systems and leaking toxic chemicals from underground storage tanks and permeable landfills.

Greatest growth is predicted in Asia-Pacific countries with a new focus on environmental services, government initiatives, more stringent environmental regulations, plus increased government remediation funding in China, Japan, India and South Korea. The range of remediation technologies is also expected to grow rapidly across bioremediation, pump and treat technologies, soil vapour extraction, thermal treatment and soil washing.

Last reviewed 17 January 2017