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How can we optimise the potential of urban brownfield sites?

Brownfield sites are excellent opportunities but policymakers need to be more aware of the challenges

Urban brownfield sites offer silver bullet potential for the UK’s housing shortage. So why do so many stand undeveloped? And what can we do about it?

While it is difficult to gauge the full scale of developable brownfield land in the UK, CPRE suggested – perhaps over-optimistically – in a recent report that there is sufficient quantity for 1.2 million homes spread over 23,000 sites.

Putting the numbers to one side, the fact is that, if managed properly, these can be excellent development opportunities. The inner town or city location makes them prime candidates to accommodate demand for a post-pandemic return to urban living, making them inherently attractive for investors and developers. For local authorities, development of the most central parts of their economies offers benefits across job creation, inward investment and consumer spending, illustrating there is political capital to be made here.

“There is a severe underappreciation, and profound knowledge gap, when it comes to policymakers understanding the complexity in dealing with these sites”

Some policy makers seem to recognise this, evidenced by central government’s creation of the Brownfield Fund, consistent rhetorical support, and frequency at which the Brownfield agenda finds its way into central and local government policy agendas. A further £60m from the second fund was released at the end of last week.

Yet despite this, there is a severe underappreciation, and profound knowledge gap, when it comes to the same policy makers understanding the complexity in dealing with these sites. Until this is addressed, and ultimately reflected in revised planning policy, sites stay vacant for longer, housing targets become further out of reach, and developers – particularly SMEs who need to build quickly – become increasingly impatient.

Solvable but complicated

Constraints to these sites are solvable – and can ultimately realise greater value for the patient developer or investor – but complex. Prior uses, such as a factory, hospital or transport infrastructure, demand hefty and expensive remedial work for them to be fit for residential use. Factory sites, for example, mean decades of oil use, leaky pipes, and chemical spills from storage areas that have seeped into the ground.

Developers take on this risk when they go to planning, which is preceded by extensive upfront cost for site assessments, technical reports, and surveys – all of which determine the viability of the site and require a great deal of specialist knowledge.

Post-planning means intensive demolition, comprehensive surveys to ascertain seepage; recovery, recycling, and vacant possession considerations – that means additional consultancy and infrastructure costs that are seldom demanded of greenfield sites, and it is worth bearing in mind this is all against the backdrop of build cost inflationary pressures and surging interest rates.

A shift in levy

So what would “real confidence” look like for developers and land promoters alike?

Differentiating between greenfield and brownfield community infrastructure levy payments would be a good place to start, recognising that significant capital expenditure is already committed upfront to a brownfield site that often lies dormant for decades, to the detriment of the local community.

There could also be a fast-track planning process, which would be introduced early in negotiations with local authorities. It could mean doing away with some of the pre-planning surveys that could be standardised. Developers must feel value, on their balance sheet and in bringing forward highly sustainable development, not least when it accords with national and local priorities.

“Policy exclusions that allow developers to get creative within the limited confines of brownfield land must be considered”

To move the dial from piecemeal brownfield development to a highly scalable housing solution representative of “brownfield first”, policy exclusions that allow developers to get creative within the limited confines of brownfield land must be considered. Site-specific affordability thresholds should be complemented by a willingness to endorse higher density and a tenure mix – for sale and rent – that is more attractive to institutional investment. Lower parking provision with car clubs, higher cycle provision and dedicated electric charging points are all important factors for sustainable brownfield sites – this can allow for a higher-quality placemaking and landscaping solution.

If governments want to push for these opportunities, they need to do so with both hands. Central governments must listen to local authorities to understand what’s happening at the most granular level. Industry must play its part too – accepting that it has an educational role to play, especially at a time when local planning teams are severely short of resource.

The opportunity to optimise brownfield sites is obvious. With planning reform high on the political agenda, supporting and scaling complex brownfield development has never been greater, or more sensibly required, than it is today.

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