Brownfield Land Won't Be Enough To Solve London's Housing Crisis

By Sam Bowman Last edited 29 months ago
Brownfield Land Won't Be Enough To Solve London's Housing Crisis
Battersea Power Station gets transformed into homes. Photo by Mr Cladding from the Londonist Flickr pool

The good news is that most politicians finally agree that there is a serious shortage of housing in Britain. The bad news is that very few are prepared to talk about the trade-offs involved in tackling that shortage, and are pretending that building on brownfield can solve the problem. This is a red herring — brownfield is not the answer.

At the margin, brownfield can be part of the mix but the idea that it can provide the land for all or even most of our needs is fairly muddled. Brownfield can be costly and sometimes less environmentally friendly to build on than greenfield. Brownfield sites often aren’t in the right places. And the brownfield that is suitable for development is already being developed.

Generally, brownfield is previously developed land that often is contaminated with low levels of hazardous chemicals, but can now be cleaned and repurposed for other uses. There are only 63,750 hectares of land defined as brownfield in England, plus 300,000 hectares of land that has been contaminated in some way (PDF). About half of the brownfield (and probably much more of non-brownfield contaminated land) is in use.

The cost of decontaminating this land is high, and as The Economist noted in 2013, this means that brownfield land can only be viable when house prices are extremely high, in much the same way that shale oil exploration is only viable when oil is very expensive. Cleaning is expensive and risky, as the people of Paddock Wood in Kent can testify: they learned back in 2014 that their £400,000 houses were built on inadequately decontaminated land, and that their kids might be playing on toxic land.

What’s more, despite the name, brownfield land isn’t always the sort of land we want to develop. The LSE’s Prof Paul Cheshire notes that “brownfield land is very frequently amenity-rich” — particularly with wildlife, as in the case of the Hoo peninsula, which is an important breeding site for nightingales but nevertheless qualifies as brownfield land. The nebulous definition of brownfield means that playing fields and other open recreational spaces can fall under this definition, too.

There isn’t enough of this land to go round, even if we wanted to use it

But the biggest problem is that there isn’t enough of this land to go round, even if we wanted to use it. Remember that the housing shortage is not a national problem: most of the housing shortage in England, as measured by prices and price rises, is in and around London and prosperous parts of the south east like Cambridge and Oxford.

There is virtually no unused brownfield in London, and the brownfield in the south east is disproportionately in use compared with the rest of the country.

The third point is that most of the brownfield that is suitable for development is already in the planning system: only one in 10 sites are not already on their way to being developed.

We may need to repeat it until we’re blue in the face: brownfield land isn’t always suitable for development, it’s mostly not where we need new houses, and the stuff that is suitable for development is already being developed.

Construction at Barking Riverside, a brownfield site. Photo by Matt Brown.

The two alternatives are to build more densely in our cities in homes people actually want to live in, about which the group Create Streets have made interesting proposals, or to build out onto the green belt. Probably both are needed: better housing in London, and more housing around it.

The case for ‘building out’ is that people really do like having gardens and bigger homes — the price premium for houses over apartments reflects this, and those who can afford this kind of home usually go for them. Urban planners have long tried to fit people into their designs — it would be nice to try to fit their designs around people instead. And the intensive farmland in the green belt is an environmental negative — more parks, and houses with gardens would be preferable, environmentally speaking.

Some brownfield sites really can help solve the housing crisis — the mayor’s review of public land in London is long overdue, for instance. But this kind of policy is unlikely to deliver the large numbers of houses we need. The last government’s drive to use public land for new homes produced just 1,800 new units. Don’t believe the brownfield hype: there are no easy solutions here, and the brownfield is at best a very small part of the solution to our housing problems.

Sam Bowman is executive director at the Adam Smith Institute.

Last Updated 27 January 2016

Continued below.


And +Londonist, while we definitely should have more housing in London - a _lot_ more housing in fact - I'm wondering is anyone thinking how those people will get to work and back? Transport (public and private) infrastructure is being built even slower than housing, and it's bursting at the seams already!


The Government's proposals for housings estate redevelopment combined with create streets would go along way.Absurd to say no brownfield land in London. Houses prices are very high making cleaning it justified. Calling the chattenden site in hoo brownfield is very misleading if you've ever been there.


This article needs to be backed up with actual figures, instead of making sweeping statements. For example, a new build proposal for 30% brownfield, 50% urban intensification, 20% green belt, based on the needs of London and the opportunities of its land and infrastructure. I mean in theory the analysis can be carried out, although it is also partly a political decision. Also, there's no critique of density in this article. This is a major issue, in that former brownfield developments say in docklands a couple decades back produced a suburban typology which is now inappropriate for London's contemporary housing crisis. A baseline density needs to be set for brownfield land i.e. pretty dense, although of course this will vary by locale.


There should be a redefinition of 'brownfield' to capture what is for practical purposes rural brownfield land within its definition. Agriculture is an industry after all, so I propose any agricultural land with no public access ( don't want to lose that amenity value after all ) is labelled as brownfield.
Oh, and get rid of all farm subsidies - that'll bring land prices down.

Leonard Will

You say "the housing shortage is not a national problem: most of the housing shortage in England, as measured by prices and price rises, is in and around London and prosperous parts of the south east". Should the government not therefore be making big efforts to spread development throughout the country, making it attractive to live away from London and the southeast? With modern communication technology it should not be necessary for so many people to spend hours commuting to an office in central London.

Matt Thomson

There's more delusion in this article on the part of the author than inherent in any of the views he is criticising.

No-one - not even CPRE - argue than brownfield alone can solve the housing problem.

But let's be honest here: the housing crisis isn't the only problem the country faces. There is also the problem of how derelict and contaminated land is a blight on quality of life right across the country, causing social, economic and environmental problems everywhere it rears its ugly head. Reclaiming brownfield sites, not just for housing development, but for meeting other needs, is a laudable objective for any government, not least because of the economic benefits this would bring in terms of making cities more competitive, but just as brownfield sites alone can't solve our housing crisis, so housing development alone can't solve the issue of derelict, polluted land. We need to do much more to ensure that these sites make a positive contribution (in whatever way) to the economy and quality of life in villages, towns and cities. The starting point for that should be a reality check for the landowners on what those sites are actually worth, rather than an expectation that, having exploited and polluted the land in the name of profit for decades (in some cases centuries) and left them covered in structures that are expensive to remove or convert, the landowner should still be able to squeeze some more profit out of their future use. Talk about having your cake and eating it.

There's also a whole host of problems - climate change, flooding, food security, mental health, obesity to name but five - that are exacerbated every time we build on greenfield land. We're going to need to build on greenfield land to meet developmental needs of course, but we need to ensure that we balance meeting those development needs and aspirations with other needs and aspirations, and ensure we use our limited supply of land wisely. And it is limited: England is the most densely populated country in Europe other than Malta, and every piece of land has multiple demands upon it.

The contribution that brownfield land can make to meeting housing needs isn't in any way "marginal" or "very small". CPRE's estimate of almost a million potential homes on current identified brownfield sites has been dismissed by some particularly blinkered people, including the author of this piece. A million homes - 4 years supply - is highly significant, especially when the supply of new brownfield sites continues to grow, as our evidence, prepared by the University of the West of England, demonstrates. You might argue that a million homes on brownfield sites sounds high. Perhaps we've assumed that every brownfield site would be developed? No - only about half of identified brownfield sites are included in this assessment: those sites identified by councils as being suitable for housing development. And we know that government has said that councils are protecting sites that could be seen as suitable for housing for other uses, so the figure could be higher. Some argue that these sites aren't in the right place: but they are mainly in places, like London, the South-East, the West Midlands, Greater Manchester and Tyne and Wear, where demand for housing is so high that sites are being released willy-nilly from the Green Belt - no demand for housing in these places? Or perhaps it is the specific locations that are places in which people would not choose to buy a house - places like London Docklands and Liverpool Docks were 20 years ago?

Not so long ago, the Government insisted that the capacity of brownfield sites in England was only 200,000 homes. Faced with CPRE's evidence, they stuck their moistened fingers in the air and upped this guestimate to 400,000. But there are permissions for 400,000 homes on brownfield sites *right now*, and many more in the pipeline in local and neighbourhood plans. When you add to this all of the other brownfield initiatives - housing zones, permitted development rights, the emerging brownfield registers and permission in principle - why are Government doing all these things if their estimate of total brownfield capacity is the same as the number of brownfield sites that already have permission? It's because *secretly* they know that the real untapped potential of brownfield land is huge. They just don't want to admit it because they, like the Adam Smith Institute, are in the thrall of a small number of big landowners and businesses in whose interests it is to plan for vast soulless suburban estates of executive housing across our precious and irreplaceable countryside.