Green vs Brown for new housing

With the need for new homes ever- increasing in the UK, Mark Smulian looks at the case for green versus brownfield sites.

Green vs Brown for new housing

With every part of the political spectrum agreeing on the need for a rapid increase in the construction of new homes, there is an easy – though environmentally unfriendly – way to do this.

Plenty of houses would get built if the government simply announced that builders could build on any green field they pleased, perhaps with the exceptions of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.

In construction terms it is easier and cheaper to build on a green field than on, say, a contaminated former industrial site, and a view over fields is popular with house buyers even if other fields were sacrificed for their home. So the housebuilding industry’s default is to seek a greenfield site unless the planning system, or restrictive environmental protection, prevents this. Only then will the more difficult, costly and often polluted previously-developed brownfield sites be considered.

This picture is not invariable, but it’s a good starting point for understanding where the housebuilding industry is coming from when disputes occur over where it builds.

There are other factors that complicate the greenfield-versus-brownfield argument. Brownfield advocates say that building on green fields leads to urban sprawl, with the need for roads, shops, hospitals, schools and other amenities to be located on additional land, whereas in a town they are already there. Others argue that developing intensively in urban areas puts unacceptable pressure on infrastructure, with demand increasing for everything from schools to sewerage.

Such disputes have gone on for decades, with builders complaining that the planning system hampers the delivery of new homes, and planners saying the builders would concrete the country, given half a chance. The question of where to build has gained salience with the acceptance on all sides that the UK faces a housing crisis, with completions way below where they need to be to meet demand, and a ‘generation rent’ unable to buy as shrinking supply has driven up prices.

Last February’s housing white paper is still government policy despite the general election, and communities secretary Sajid Javid remains in charge. Its title said it all: Fixing Our Broken Housing Market. Setting out the problem, it said: “For too long, we haven’t built enough homes. Since the 1970s, there have been on average 160,000 new homes each year in England. The consensus is that we need from 225,000 to 275,000 or more homes per year to keep up with population growth and start to tackle years of under‑supply.”

The problem was not space – the white paper noted that only 11% of England has been built upon – but that not enough local authorities were planning for the homes needed in their area, and that housebuilding was too slow and too reliant on a few large companies. It suggested four remedies. The first was a series of reforms to the land-use planning system, so that local authorities have up-to-date plans with a five-year supply of land to meet housing need, with priority given to building on brownfield and surplus public land and to building at higher densities. It also contained measures to help people into the housing market, but the main new area for action was diversifying the market.

House building is dominated by eight large firms. They build what their capacity – in terms of land, labour and finance – allows and release homes to the market as they judge profitable. To get more homes built more rapidly, more builders must be found, and the only source is the smaller firms squeezed out in the past 20 years. Smaller builders need small plots, but these are hard to come by. It’s easier for planners to deal with one developer with one site of, say, 10 hectares, than with multiple builders who each want to build only 10 houses. In theory, the switch of emphasis to small firms would be more environmentally friendly, since they do not use greenfield sites and are happy with smaller, in-fill projects in towns.

Sustainability featured little in the white paper, but has long been a battleground between builders and regulators.Governments seeking to meet climate change commitments have at various times sought to impose carbon reduction measures, water recycling, solar power and less direct sustainability actions such as proximity to public transport. While housebuilders do not object to these measures as such, they do object to things that add cost when they are unconvinced customers will be willing to pay more for them. This approach turns on lobbying power and the political climate. Every time environmentalists succeed in getting some new sustainability measure into the Building Regulations, the industry will campaign against it if it does not suit its needs.

In the wake of the white paper, the industry has dropped its usual calls for more greenfield sites. The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) represents smaller firms, and its chief executive Brian Berry says: “We had been engaging with ministers and civil servants about diversifying the housing market, seeking recognition that smaller firms face three main barriers to building. 

“The first is availability of land, as local plans tend to allocate large parcels of land that are not attractive to local builders who need small plots. The second is finance – ever since the 2008 financial crisis, small builders have struggled to get finance for housebuilding, and third is the complexity of the planning system.”

Larger firms are gathered in the Home Builders Federation (HBF), which has shown a perhaps unexpected willingness to go along with the white paper’s thinking. It has supported helping smaller firms into the market, but also urged improvements to what it called “the time-consuming and bureaucratic” planning system. Builders have a longstanding grievance that they must agree, as part of securing planning permission, to contribute to both site-specific infrastructure such as access roads, and to wider amenities like new schools to cater for the population increase generated by new homes: “Builders pay millions each year towards improved infrastructure, and more effective coordination would deliver considerable benefits for communities while accelerating delivery,” the HBF says.

However, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) is an enthusiast for planning restrictions. A spokesperson says: “CPRE supports a ‘brownfield first’ policy which prioritises brownfield sites for development over greenfield. Brownfield land offers the opportunity for redevelopment and regeneration in areas with existing infrastructure, access to local amenities and proximity to existing communities. CPRE supports building on greenfield sites in some cases – where the choice of such a development is a community-led decision, is sensitive to the landscape and meets genuine local need.” 

The Queen’s Speech, shying away from controversy given the general election result, omitted a target to build new homes and reforms to compulsory purchase to help local authorities buy sites for homes more easily. This potential hiatus in government activity illustrates the political difficulty of tackling housing when environmentalists, builders, planners, financiers and local politicians all have different priorities.

A poll by the National Housing Federation, which represents social landlords, found in May that just 8% of respondents felt no new homes were needed in their area. That scale of support ought to make it easy to find a consensus on building, but it would still be a brave councillor who supported large-scale development in, say, some of the wealthier enclaves of Surrey. 


Mark Smulian is a freelance journalist

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