UK: The Greenfield/Brownfield Dilemma

Last Updated: 18 January 2001
Article by Richard Sugar

The identification of land for new housing development has never been so difficult for developers. This follows radical Government guidance in the form of Planning Policy Guidance Note 3 (PPG3) published in March this year. The Government's principle aim is to provide the majority of new housing on brownfield sites, that is to say, land which has previously been developed. The Guidance gives clear priority to the development of brownfield land before greenfield land. Whilst this concept is straightforward enough in principle, the application of it throws up many uncertainties for the house building industry.

On a national level, the Government has set a target for 60 per cent of new houses to be built on previously developed land. A similar target has been suggested on a regional level through the draft Regional Planning Guidance for Yorkshire and the Humber. Whilst in the first instance, the duty to deliver development on brownfield land falls with Local Planning Authorities, the Government has indicated that planning applications on larger greenfield residential sites which local planning authorities are minded to approve, will first have to be referred to the Secretary of State, in order to see whether he agrees with the authority's judgment.

PPG3 sets a clear hierarchy for the development of land with a search sequence which starts with the re-use of previously developed land within urban areas, then allows consideration of urban extensions and finally new development around nodes in good public transport corridors. In making judgments about the suitability of sites, several criteria are to be applied, the first of which is the availability of previously developed sites. PPG3 advises Local Planning Authorities to undertake urban housing capacity studies in order to form such judgments. At present, however, Authorities have not had the opportunity of undertaking such analysis (other than at a very basic level).

It is apparent that until there is a clear understanding of the amount of previously developed land that is suitable for housing use, the application of PPG3 policies will be difficult to predict. This is particularly the case when one considers that the Guidance is stated to be a material consideration which may supersede policies in development plans and therefore make existing housing allocations on greenfield land effectively worthless.

The interpretation which different Local Planning Authorities appear to be putting on the Guidance varies significantly. At its recent Executive Board Meeting, Leeds City Council resolved that following a broad analysis of brownfield land within the district, as suitable brownfield sites were available, there should be a presumption against permitting housing on greenfield land, even though the greenfield land in question may have been allocated in a development plan for residential purposes. This approach leaves a number of questions for residential developers: what do they do now with greenfield sites which they have spent significant amounts of money promoting through the development plan system? Will it simply be a question of waiting until brownfield land has been developed and then returning to the same greenfield sites? How long will it take the Local Planning Authority to conclude a fully detailed urban housing capacity study? How should such a study deal with any mismatch between the location of brownfield land and different areas of housing market demand?

By way of comparison to Leeds, in Kirklees there appears to be a recognition that although brownfield sites generally should be developed before greenfield sites, there should be at all times a sufficiency of land. As a result, Kirklees appears to have recognised that greenfield sites will need to be developed now, even though undeveloped brownfield land still exists.

At a national level, since the introduction of PPG3 a few months ago, the Secretary of State has already shown his commitment to the refusal of planning permission on greenfield sites. Particular examples of this exist in Nuneaton and Bedworth, where large greenfield developments have been refused, notwithstanding that the sites were allocated for residential development.

The problem becomes even more complex when one realises that the development of brownfield land is itself far from straightforward. Apart from the inherent reclamation issues that often exist, there is genuine resistance to developing within urban areas on the grounds of town cramming. Indeed, in a number of recent appeals, development within suburban areas has been refused on grounds of density, over-development and loss of privacy and amenity. This is the case even when regular standards on these issues have been met. It is clear that such an approach will have a detrimental effect on the achievability of brownfield housing land development targets.

The dilemmas for housebuilders are obvious. On one level, efforts to develop on brownfield land can be thwarted because of fears of town cramming, whilst on another, greenfield land which has been successfully promoted through development plans may not now be capable of development for some considerable time. It is at present almost impossible to make judgments about how long that time period is and the information which will inform that judgment has in most instances, neither been prepared, nor considered in terms of its application.

Just to make matters worse, it is expected that a revision to PPG4 (Dealing with Employment Land) will be produced in Consultation Draft form later this year. It is widely rumoured that this document will contain a similar approach to the identification of such land.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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