Housing Plan U-turn: Back to Urban Brownfield?

The government’s recently published Housing Plan was built on an algorithm that calculated numbers based on population growth and housing need. It looked to balance demand across the country, helping to “level up” the north and generate construction jobs.

All very logical on the surface, but it has fallen at the first hurdle through resistance from its own backbench MPs, including former PM Theresa May, who called the plans “mechanistic”.

Robert Jenrick has been forced to re-prioritise plans away from the rural shires, especially in the south that would have seen the greatest gains, and focus again on building new homes in England’s cities.

Reinvigorating our Urban Spaces

MPs criticised the plans for accelerating the flight from declining town and city centres into the countryside, creating doughnut spaces of deprivation. Covid-19 had already led to a surge of wealthier buyers fleeing urban areas in search of space and fresh air, so the planning system didn’t need to encourage this any further.

Critics may view this as running scared, of rebellion in the ranks and a further heavy dose of middle-class nimbyism. But the u-turn is better for our countryside and seeks again to reinvigorate our town and city centres through re-purposing our plentifully available brownfield land and vacant commercial sites.

Another “mutant algorithm” has been ditched with the announcement that the government would aim to build 300,000 dwellings a year, with cities being encouraged to plan for more family homes in the nation’s 20 largest cities to help re-vitalise high streets ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic.

High streets were already declining through the switch to online by shoppers, and now plenty of commercial to residential conversions are underway across the country, helped in part by the planning use class changes in the summer. But Covid-19 has created what Jenrick calls a “generational opportunity for the repurposing of offices and retail as housing and for urban renewal”

Under the new plans, a £100m Brownfield Land Release Fund will promote urban regeneration and development on public sector land. More than £67m in funding is also being allocated to the West Midlands and Greater Manchester authorities to deliver new homes.

Covid-19 stalled new starts, but optimistic future

It feels like we have been here before with announcements heralding brownfield land as the saviour and perhaps this will be the case this time as, with many things this year. Covid-19 has perhaps now created a fundamental shift in thinking on town centres.

But this comes at a time when the pandemic has also put the brakes on new build housing supply as construction inevitably ground to a halt in the first lockdown, to re-open again and seek to catch up over the summer.

Homes England housing programmes only saw 11,313 new houses started on site and 11,358 homes between 1 April and 30 September 2020. This is down 38% compared with the first half of 2019, with completions down 25%. Affordable housing starts made up 79%, a fall of 32% year on year on last year.

Homes England has pointed to government confirmation of £12 billion of funding through the Affordable Homes Programme to give the construction sector a confidence boost over the next five years. The construction sector continues to recover and grow strongly, with house building performing particularly well and the prospect of vaccine delivery through 2021 should improve economic sentiment later in the year to sustain the housing market which may enter a temporary (and artificial) shadow after the SDLT holiday ends on the 31st of March.

Delays built up in 2020 could see a slew of major builds in urban areas, together with remaining ones on lower quality green field sites given fresh momentum in 2021.

While longer-term, the impact on rural villages and small market towns may diminish, this won’t necessarily cancel those schemes that are in the pipeline or earmarked through local authority calls for land through Strategic Housing and Economic Land Availability Assessments (SHEELAs) such as that we recently reported at Hursley, Hampshire.

Will Brownfield Land Finally Deliver?

Brownfield land may not be capable of single-handedly solving the housing shortage, but its contribution to regenerating previously developed land, avoiding ecological damage and minimising urban sprawl, cannot be underestimated.

Tim Champney Future Climate Info

Tim Champney, Managing Director at Future Climate Info comments:

Brownfield sites are often complex. Not only in terms of complicated ownership and usage restrictions, but from a design or cost perspective in relation to contamination issues and ground preparation.

For these reasons (and many more), brownfield sites are sometimes un-favoured and left forgotten, despite the stipulations within the National Planning Policy Framework to support such reuse.  

The government’s intention to champion regeneration development initiatives in England’s cities with the release of funding is encouraging on many levels. But there are always two sides to every coin.

Renewed enthusiasm for brownfield development in some areas will have both positive and negative effects on those already living in close proximity. Urban landscapes can be attractive and sought after, as well as the current proximity to favourite shops, cafes, work or amenities. However, an expectation for the urban landscape to remain unaltered is potentially a road to disappointment.

House-hunters really should take the time to consider the environment surrounding their prospective-purchase. They should ask whether surrounding buildings appear properly occupied and in use and how any changes to their surrounds might impact upon their own enjoyment of the urban ecosystem?”

Be Alert to Local Planning changes for your Client

Homebuyers looking at property adjacent to vacant brownfield or commercial/retail units will need to stay vigilant for changes to land use designations or scheme approvals for regeneration. On the one hand, it improves derelict sites and could raise market values through gentrification and renewal, but it could equally increase housing density, loss of views and privacy, increased traffic movement and air pollution.

Conveyancers and their clients need to be wary of these situations and review any guidance in local plans. They should therefore closely examine planning data as part of their due diligence searches.

FCI’s Premium Plus Planning Report pulls “live” planning data from the supplier at the request of each report, ensuring that the very latest available information is used to compile the product.

Using FCI’s unique intelligent FCICapture technology, we identify planning issues which, although lying outside of the search boundary, if completed may, in reality, extend within the area of interest around the subject property.

This unique approach combines essential information on contaminated land, flood, energy and ground stability checks to complete full environmental due diligence for your client.

For more information, contact us on 01732 755 180 or email info@futureclimateinfo.com 



Housing statistics: 1 April 2020 – 30 September 2020 can be found on the UK Government website.


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