You don’t have to hate cows to want to solve the housing crisis | Jonn Elledge

Defenders of greenfield land fail to mention that many brownfield sites are cut off, contaminated and unsuitable for housing

If you wanted a single fact to demonstrate that “brownfield” is not always a useful term when deciding where to build houses, you could do worse than this: until a few years ago, it included back gardens.

That may seem counterintuitive: brownfield, after all, summons up mental images of derelict factories and so forth. But in its original sense, it simply meant “not greenfield” – that is, land that had already been developed – and gardens, being attached to houses, were fair game. And so, it would have been theoretically possible to concrete the country’s gardens and still claim you had only built on brownfield. This was self-evidently ridiculous, so in 2010 the government changed the rules.

Land use classification systems are not the sort of thing to make you popular at parties (believe me, I’ve checked), but they have a direct impact on what we can build where in this country, and on why we don’t seem to have enough homes. For some years now, government policy has stated that planners should prioritise brownfield land when deciding where development should take place: it’s better, after all, to regenerate run-down or derelict areas inside a city than to leave them to rot while concreting over a perfectly nice field outside it.

The problem is there are nimbyish forces in our society that elide “brownfield first” with “brownfield only”, and demand we do not risk a single square inch of greenfield until we have exhausted the alternative. These groups are not, one suspects, at the sharp end of the housing crisis.

Chief among them is the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), which claims to have found space for another 1.1m homes on brownfield land. Even better, campaigner Rebecca Pullinger said in a press release, such sites are “available in areas with high housing pressure”, such as London. The report doesn’t quite come out and say it, but the clear implication is that any housing campaigners who still support greenfield development after that must secretly hate cows.

I’ve no reason to think the CPRE figures are incorrect, in a narrow, technical sense. Where I do disagree, though, is with its interpretation of them. For one thing, “1.1m homes” is one of those numbers that sounds big but actually really isn’t. Most experts think we should be building between 250,000 and 300,000 homes every year in this country: this is no more than four years’ worth. In some regions, like the south-east, it’s barely two years’ worth. With this report, the CPRE has accidentally proved that restricting development to brownfield is a recipe for a continued housing crisis.

There’s a bigger problem: the word “brownfield” tells you nothing about how appropriate for new housing a site actually is. Is it close to transport links (and so a good place to build), or a very long way away from them (and therefore terrible)? Has the land been expensively contaminated through previous industrial uses? Is it on a flood plain, even? We might be able to fit a million houses on this land in theory. That does not mean we could do so in practice.

There’s one last problem with the brownfield-only approach to development: there’s often no organisation that has both money and inclination to bring some of this land back into use. Take Barking Riverside, one of the largest slugs of industrial brownfield awaiting regeneration in the capital. As far back as the 1990s, it was talked of as a suitable place for more than 10,000 homes.

So why, when London has since reached the point that individual parking garages are going for several hundred thousand quid, has no profit-hungry developer actually built those houses? Because the site is an awkward combination of contaminated and cut-off: simply put, it’s difficult to sell homes there for the sort of prices that will actually meet the costs of building the things. (A new London Overground station will help, but it won’t arrive until nearly 30 years after the first talk of redevelopment.)

Best one can tell, the CPRE research doesn’t take into account whether a patch of land is suitable for housing, or whether it’s the sort of thing that the private developers on which our housing market currently depends might want to develop. All it cares about is that it has that magic word brownfield attached.

Then again, the CPRE doesn’t have to care, does it? Its job is to defend greenfield land, whatever the cost. The housing crisis? That’s someone else’s problem. Very possibly, it’s yours.

• Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman’s cities site, CityMetric


Jonn Elledge

The GuardianTramp

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