Brownfield UK Land The Only Show in Town

The Government’s plans to focus residential development on Brownfield UK land is fraught with challenges, writes Alex Way.

The Government’s much vaunted commitment to delivering 3 million new homes on UK land by 2021 is considered unrealistic in some circles (given c.13% of UK land is in Greenbelts). Others however regard that target as inadequate for a burgeoning population (pointing out that 3 million new homes reflect not the future but the current requirement). Whichever view is correct, Brownfield UK land will feature prominently in the UK’s house-building programme.

For those unfamiliar with the term, Brownfield UK land is that which has been previously used for industrial or commercial activities, but not residential purposes. Such UK land may or may not retain ‘legacies’ of its former use (e.g. contamination).It is becoming clear is that the Government’s approach to land use planning on UK land has two dimensions Brownfield redevelopment and the creation of a number of ‘Eco-towns’. It is Brownfield UK land which is the subject of this article; ‘Eco-towns’ will be considered elsewhere.

Given the strategic importance of Brownfield UK land in ameliorating the UK’s housing shortage, many people involved in investing in land will likely consider Brownfield UK land for sale. There is of course no definitive answer with respect to whether such an acquisition is the best investment for someone buying land as a land investment it may well be so. But there are some peculiar challenges associated with Brownfield UK land development to which we can now turn.

The most profound barrier to residential property development on Brownfield UK land has already been mentioned in passing contamination. This can be particularly pronounced in respect of a UK land site formerly used for industrial purposes, (eg a chemical plant). However, ‘soil remediation’ in many cases can sufficiently decontaminate UK land sites of this type so that they can in fact be used for residential property development.

Those involved in buying land as a land investment or for residential property development purposes are (or should be) acutely aware that remediation work can be extremely expensive, and is not a panacea some Brownfield UK land sites cannot be made fit for human habitation owing to a former use.

Another consideration in developing Brownfield UK land sites is ‘bad neighbours’. This has nothing to do with ASBOs and everything to do with the fact that in many cases Brownfield UK land is surrounded by development land with a similar land use planning status industrial or commercial. Therefore even if the subject Brownfield UK land site is not contaminated, neighbouring sites may be so, and at any rate, an extended area used for industrial or commercial activities will often lack the features of sustainability which are considered prerequisites for UK land to be used for residential purposes, (eg public transport links, local services and amenities).

It goes without saying that the majority of people involved in buying land as a land investment or for residential property development does so on the basis of the financial viability of the project (ie the opportunity to extract profits). This necessitates a robust method of ‘risk assessment’. The associated issue here is that Brownfield UK land development projects can difficult to risk assess accurately.

Whilst it is known that land planning authorities will now tend to look favourably on sustainable residential property development proposals on Brownfield UK land sites, the only UK land planning directive in relation to the riskscosts involved in remediating a given piece of Brownfield UK land is the term ‘suitability of use’. Thus, without a set of clearly defined standards in this area, risk assessment particularly in relation to decontamination can be very challenging.

The issues mentioned above with respect to the challenges in developing Brownfield UK land are the most obvious, but there also many others. Indeed, in some observers’ eyes, Brownfield UK land is unlikely to be able to deliver the number of houses expected by the Government, (ie it is likely that the capacity of Brownfield UK land has been significantly overstated).

These observers reason that Brownfield UK land is being given such prominence because to do so is politically expedient the Government needs to be seen to be building significant numbers of new homes, but is acutely aware of the NIMBYs and the political risks in committing to ‘bulldozing’ UK land in the Greenbelts.

NIMBYs ‘Not in my back yard’ – the moniker given to those living in the heartlands of England who resist new development near their homes. The term is always used in a pejorative sense.

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