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By Colin Wiles, housing consultant.
A year ago, there were positive signs, thanks to Dominic Cummings, that the Conservatives had finally grasped the enormity of the housing crisis and were prepared to reform the planning system to allow more building on greenfield sites, particularly in the areas of greatest need such as the South East.
The “Mutant Algorithm” proposed by MHCLG, and pushed by Cummings, would have required local authorities to take account of “market signals” in planning for new homes – in other words, more building in areas where house prices were highest.
This met with fierce opposition from Shire Tories and the algorithm was watered down, with a greater emphasis on building in the north and on brownfield land; but the government continued with its plans to reform the planning system, proposing a shorter time frame for local plan-making and a three-tier system with growth areas, renewal areas, and protected areas.
There would then be fewer opportunities to object once the local plan has been put in place.
In his conference speech, referring to his plan to bring back beavers (hear, hear to that!), Boris Johnson said:
“Build back beaver. Though the beavers may sometimes build without local authority permission, you can also see how much room there is to build the homes that young families need in this country. Not on green fields, not just jammed in the South East, but beautiful homes on brownfield sites in places where homes make sense.”
If you recall, the Queen’s Speech said, “Laws to modernise the planning system, so that more homes can be built, will be brought forward”, but there has been no planning bill as yet, and it now looks like any much-needed reforms will be scrapped.
The Daily Telegraph, which usually has an inside track to government thinking, says this is a prelude to scrapping the planning reforms altogether. The loss of Amersham in the by-election last June and the need to shore up the Blue Wall in the north appear be the nails in the coffin of planning reform.
So, the nimbys win again.
The new focus, says the Telegraph, will be on brownfield land, and there is even discussion on whether to scrap the current target (or ambition) of building 300,000 homes a year. Michael Gove, just a few weeks into the job as Housing Secretary, said: “The route to having more good affordable homes is not simply through planning reform to increase supply.”
Prior to 2010, the government called for 60% of homes to be built on brownfield land. This led to a spate of garden grabbing, with large urban plots containing a single dwelling being bought up and redeveloped at higher densities.
But as this 2014 study from planning consultancy Lichfields showed, there is simply not enough brownfield land to meet the need for new homes, and little has changed since then.
Firstly, the National Land Use Database shows that there is only enough brownfield land for around one million homes over 15 years – that’s about a fifth of the government target/ambition.
Secondly, a lot of this brownfield land is not in the right places. Around a fifth of brownfield sites outside London are in the countryside on old airfields etc. Many have important amenity value, and a significant number of sites are in the green belt. Lichfields estimates that these green belt sites had capacity for 23,000 homes, but it is doubtful whether many could be built.
Also, unless these rural brownfield sites can be turned into self-contained communities with a full range of services and facilities, then they will only add to commuting and cause more problems for the climate.
Take Manston airport in East Kent, for example. It is an old Battle of Britain aerodrome of around 280 hectares with one of the longest runways in England.
It has had a chequered recent history as a passenger and freight terminal but its future as an airport is in doubt. In the past, Thanet Council designated it for housing and other mixed uses, as it is technically a brownfield site.
It could, in theory, provide thousands of new homes, yet many local people have launched fierce campaigns against new housing, some arguing that they would only benefit outsiders from London (for which read ‘problem cases’).
Many of the same people have also campaigned for it to be re-opened as an airport, although other locals have campaigned against this on noise grounds, and they have been joined by Extinction Rebellion, who do not want any new airport capacity anywhere in the UK.
So, there you have the problem of many brownfield sites in a nutshell: everyone wants their say, and there is no consensus about how they should be dealt with.
The consequence of a ‘brownfield first’ policy is that our cities will become ever more densified, housing build costs will go up (due to the costs of remediating brownfield sites) and, ultimately, the government will have to abandon the 300,000 target/ambition simply because we do not have enough land for new homes.
It often seems that we are stuck in one of Dante’s Circles of Hell, where the same old arguments are debated ad nauseam and nothing ever moves forward. I never thought I would say this, but I miss Dominic Cummings.