Matthew Farrow 06 October 2021

Are we missing a trick? How Brownfield can unlock levelling up

Are we missing a trick? How Brownfield can unlock levelling up image

For many years official policy has been to encourage brownfield development. It is easy to understand why – it makes the most of space that once had a useful purpose and can reinvigorate local communities by turning disused land into much needed homes, parks and commercial developments.

At least that is the intention. The reality is that brownfield often remains an untapped resource with developers preferring the perceived simplicity of greenfield sites. The lack of economies of scale, technical difficulties inherent on some small sites, and the additional costs and uncertainties involved in remediating ground contamination, are often viewed as barriers to brownfield development.

However, if we are to meet Government’s longer term ambitions on issues such as housing and levelling up, then brownfield needs to become part of the solution – whether its about finding the space to meet our national housing targets of 300,000 homes a year, or bringing new investment to traditionally underfunded towns, cities and communities.

Furthermore, the availability of brownfield in the former heavily industrialised heartlands of the North West, Midlands and North East, means any plan to revitalise the local built environment in those regions will have to include a key role for brownfield.

At the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC), we have been making the case for brownfield development for years, both behind the scenes with policymakers and with the wider industry. Our view has always been that a brownfield first approach makes most sense in today’s world.

Our latest report, Brownfield First, outlines a series of realistic proposals to encourage brownfield development. These include changes to the planning regime to ensure new local plans drive targeted brownfield development, increased tax relief to improve the economic viability of marginal projects, and ensuring that the recently announced levelling-up funding and National Infrastructure Bank prioritises brownfield.

Regarding planning specifically, we are arguing for a greenfield surcharge which would be added to the infrastructure levy proposed in recent planning changes, and would see the funds earmarked by local authorities for infrastructure spending to help mitigate the higher development costs often associated with it.

We believe that these steps would help local councils and their planning teams make common sense decisions on brownfield and, inspired by marquee developments such as the Olympic Park in London, revitalise areas which are currently unproductive.

Taken together, our recommendations will help unlock brownfield’s untapped and huge potential. With more than 20,000 sites currently on local authority brownfield registers – enough for over one million homes and another 30,000 hectares available for non-housing development – the prize is potentially huge and definitely worth the political capital.

Matthew Farrow is director of policy at the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC)

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