The area of brownfield land is growing faster than it is being used. Yet Government proposals risk neglecting large areas in our towns and cities which need regeneration and place the countryside at risk.
A new report published by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) , Building in a Small Island, challenges claims that there is a shortage of brownfield land suitable for housing development .
The findings bring into question the Government’s proposed national planning policies that would no longer require developers to use previously developed land for any new development before greenfield sites are considered.
The research commissioned by CPRE found that - far from running out - the supply of brownfield land is dynamic and increasing. For every five suitable housing plots becoming available in England between 2001 and 2009, only three homes where built . Even in the South East where housing demand is highest, land supply outpaced demand with one quarter (26 per cent) of suitable brownfield plots going unused.
Neil Sinden, Director of Policy and Campaigns for CPRE, says: “The idea that we’re running out of brownfield land is a myth. Developing new housing on appropriate brownfield land first is the most environmentally, socially and economically sustainable option. It should be a central strand of the Government’s final National Planning Policy Framework. Land is a finite resource, particularly on this small, crowded island of ours, and we should recycle it whenever possible.”
The brownfield first approach was first introduced in 1995. The CPRE study found that over 143 square miles of brownfield land have been developed for housing since 1995 - safeguarding large areas of Green Belt and other countryside across England. If this development had taken place on greenfield land, an area seven times the size of Southampton, or over 52,647 football pitches, would have been lost to new development.
Neil Sinden continued: “It can't be right to dig up fields and hedgerows for housing when we have chain link fences around derelict sites blighting large areas in our towns and cities. We stand at a critical moment in the history of England’s built environment. CPRE recognises there is a need for more housing but making it easier for developers to build on more profitable greenfield sites while suitable brownfield sites require regeneration will not lead to sustainable economic growth.”
Focusing new housing development on brownfield sites in urban areas has had critical economic and social benefits. Ministers have argued that their proposed policy would be less environmentally damaging as it would safeguard some land currently classed as ‘brownfield’ but with high value for wildlife. Wildlife groups have responded jointly with CPRE to state that the solution to this issue is a tighter definition of brownfield, not the removal of a brownfield first approach .
Neil Sinden concluded: “Our research shows that there is plenty of brownfield land available and national planning policy should promote its use as part of a sustainable approach to development. We should continue to regenerate our urban areas, particularly by encouraging the provision of much needed affordable housing.”
Quotes in Support of the brownfield first approach:
CPRE has found widespread support for the brownfield first approach including:
- John Gummer, Former Secretary of State for the Environment;
- Liz Peace, Chief Executive of the British Property Federation;
- Lord Rogers of Riverside, Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, Chair of the Urban Task Force;
- Tom Bloxham MBE, Group Chairman and Founder, Urban Splash;
- Chris Brown, Chief Executive - Igloo Regeneration;
- Tony Burton, Director – Civic Voice and
- Martin Crookston, Strategic Planning Consultancy
- Alastair McCapra, Chief Executive, Landscape Institute
- Adrian Wilkes, Chair, the Environmental Industries Commission
Full quotes in support can be downloaded here: http://bit.ly/sYYfwG
Key findings from the report:
- In England there is sufficient brownfield land available and suitable for residential development for 1,494,070 new dwellings. This is equivalent to around 6 years’ supply at the building rates the government claims we need and 10 year supply at 2009 building rates. (2009 figures)
- There is land available for 452,110 new dwellings in the southern regions (London, South East, and the South West).
- The proposed changes to national planning policy could lead, under scenarios projected by the Government, to the amount of greenfield land being used for housing more than doubling (a 158 per cent increase).
- The highest levels of brownfield re-use for new housing in recent years was in 2007, when overall housing output was also at its highest.
- More previously developed land was available and suitable for housing in 2009 than in 2001.
- In England three homes were built for every five suitable plots available. (62 per cent or 942,410 new homes)
- In the South West almost all suitable plots that became available for housing were used. (98 per cent or 91,820 new homes)
- In the South East three homes were built for every four suitable plots available. (74 per cent or 169,109 new homes)
- In London only one in three plots suitable for housing were re-developed. (35 per cent or 166,178 new homes)
- In the East of England, nine homes were built for every 10 suitable plots. (87 per cent or 109,264 new homes)
- In the West Midlands, nine homes were built for every 10 suitable plots. (87 per cent or 90,169 new homes)
- In the East Midlands, four out of five suitable housing plots were re-developed. (80 per cent or 77,207 new homes)
- In Yorkshire and the Humber, well over four in five suitable housing plots were re-developed. (83 per cent or 85,896 new homes)
- In the North West, just under half of suitable housing plots were re-developed. (48 per cent or 119,074 new homes)
- In the North East, two out of three suitable housing plots were re-developed. (68 per cent or 36,120 new homes)
Notes to Editors
 Campaign to Protect Rural England, ‘Building in a small island: Why we still need Brownfields First’, November 2011
 Department of Communities and Local Government, NPPF Impact assessment, July 2011, page 49, paragraph 2
 See 1, page 25 Table 7
 For full details see Wildlife & Countryside Link’s response to the draft NPPF, available from www.wcl.org.uk/docs/Link_response_to_NPPF_consultation_171011.pdf
This report responds to one of the potentially most far reaching changes proposed in the Government’s consultation draft National Planning Policy Framework. It examines the proposals to cease giving clear priority nationally to development on brownfield sites (formally called ‘previously developed land’) before greenfield. It also considers the implications of the related recent policy changes made by the Government to drop the minimum housing density range which has until recently been recommended as national policy.
Here in England, 81 per cent of us are urban citizens. By 2030, that figure will have risen to 92 per cent. In five centuries, we have switched from being an almost completely rural people to almost completely urban. The effect of urbanisation on the landscape has been transformative. In the long, post-glacial history of landscape evolution, the appearance of towns and cities has been very sudden, very recent. The history of green-field development in the UK is less a tale of gradual evolution, than of urban shock and awe.
In the hundred years between 1500 and 1600, the population of England doubled from 2 million to 4.1 million. And then the population doubled again. By 1800, the UK population had soared to 11 million, which is where the graph really takes off and becomes a hockey-stick curve. The census of 1911 recorded 42 million and we’re now at 62.3 million. A few years ago, England became the most densely populated major nation in Europe. In the world rankings of major countries by population density, England comes in at number three, after Bangladesh and South Korea.
The extra 60 million or so that have populated these lands since 1500 have made their presence most apparent in urban areas. The old notion of a ‘town’ has been swamped. New urban labels have had to be invented. We have travelled from market town to ‘megalopolis’ in a blink of history. The UK has been continually-inhabited for the last 12,000 years or so, but really breakneck urbanisation has been concentrated into the last 200 years. In the last century alone, the housing stock of Great Britain increased three-fold, from about 7 million to 22 million permanent dwellings.
Projections suggest that the population will continue to increase and peak at around 65 million in 2050, about 2.7 million above today’s total, before beginning a gradual decline. So we have to house a further 2.7 million people. To put it in its urban context, that is nearly three cities the size of Birmingham (992,000). In the next forty years.
Planning for the future
2050 is a truly historic turning point. The urban population of these islands has been growing for thousands of years. Forty years from now, or thereabouts, it will stop. We have to be very careful indeed what we do now; how we plan for these final forty years of rapid growth. In terms of population expansion and urban growth we’re not in the final straight; we’re in the final few strides. We have to provide for 2.7 million people; the addition of just over 4 per cent to our existing population. This is not a moment to make rushed - or rash - decisions, because what we plan now; what we build now, is going to end up being part of the final fabric of these islands.
How we provide homes, food, water, and transport and so on for three more Birminghams is of pressing importance. Fortunately, we’re not having to make a standing start. Planning permission already exists for 280,000 houses whose foundations have yet to be laid; there are around 750,000 ‘long-term empty’ houses, and it’s been estimated that brown-field sites have the capacity to absorb as many as 3 million houses.
Building on green field sites in the countryside - remote from jobs, services and public transport hubs - is no solution. It’s not a sustainable, or a resilient, option.
Our countryside is too precious to lose
The UK is currently 72 per cent self sufficient in staple foods like meat and fresh vegetables - down from 95 per cent in 1984. Fields, woodland, uncultivated land, the coastal strip - our countryside - are essential for crops, grazing, biodiversity, fresh water. And recreation. If you live in one of the most densely populated lands in the world, open space, green space, is inestimably valuable.
It’s not as if three Birminghams plonked in the UK countryside would destroy it all, but you only have to look at Ireland, or Spain, or Greece, to see what happens when planning restrictions are relaxed. It’s not that the place we call countryside completely disappears, but more that the sense of rurality - that combination of tranquillity, nature and built forms that have been introduced by humans working the land - becomes disfigured; degraded.
In England, 65 per cent of land lies outside cities, towns, green belts and protected parks. It’s this 65 per cent that developers have their eyes on. One of the reasons that the rural English landscape is still such a beautiful place is that it’s been protected by a fundamental planning principle, that long-term use of the land should take precedence over an owner’s right to profit. That is why - as Simon Jenkins put it in the Guardian recently, ‘there are no bungalows on the white cliffs of Dover and no wind farms on the Chilterns. It is why, when you look out over the Severn Valley, you do not see Bristol merged with Gloucester.’
Making the most of towns and cities
It’s time we revalued urban living as one of our most environmentally-friendly habits. Urbanisation is a positive trend; it minimises our impact on the planet. ‘Density,’ as the UN Population Fund put it recently, ‘is potentially useful.’ Public transport, shared housing, jobs and so on are more available in towns and cities than they are in villages. Urbanisation concentrates human impacts into confined areas, with lower per capita carbon footprints.
The three Birminghams have to be plugged into existing infrastructures wherever possible. That means increasing population densities in our existing cities and towns; it means making full use of brownfield sites. To give a rough idea of the scale of the challenge; housing 2.7 million people in new homes is equivalent to each of the UK’s 66 towns and cities with populations above 100,000 absorbing a further 10,000 people each, and each of the UK’s remaining 1,400 towns absorbing a further 1,500 each.
Many of you will belong to a generation that is going to witness the end of rapid urban growth. As the demographic brakes are applied, the form of our cities and towns will become less fluid, more crystalised. Urban footprints will stabilise, and we’ll enter a new era of long-term planning where the focus will be on function rather than expansion. An era of intelligent buildings, intelligent transportation; sustainability. An age where form and process matters more than growth. At its most simplistic, it’s a switch from planning for quantity, to planning for quality. And that is immensely exciting.
Fellow, Royal Geographical Society
Vice President, Campaign to Protect Rural England
Excerpts from a lecture to the Royal Geographical Society, 10 October 2011
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The document outlines legal advice given to CPRE on the Government's draft National Planning Policy Framework.
Responding to comments made by Chancellor George Osborne and Communities Sectary Eric Pickles in a joint article for the Financial Times (http://on.ft.com/nkBhbJ), Shaun Spiers, Campaign to Protect Rural England Chief Executive, says:
“The Treasury’s ill-informed intervention in the planning debate reinforces the sense that the Government’s planning reforms are more about boosting short term growth figures than about truly sustainable development.
“It is unfortunate that just as Greg Clark has offered to talk with critics of the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), his senior colleagues have indicated that they are unwilling to listen or to compromise, preferring to talk of their ‘determination to win this battle’.
“No one is defending unacceptable delays in the planning system. We agree that it needs reform. And we agree that the country needs many more homes, particularly affordable homes.
“But there is no good evidence that the planning system is stopping us building the homes we need, or that it is holding back economic recovery. The Government’s proposals to skew the planning system in favour of economic development at the expense of environmental and social considerations are unlikely to result in more development, just more poor quality development on greenfield land.
“Unless the Government thinks again, its proposals will cause irreversible damage to both our towns and countryside. It is time that David Cameron stepped in to ensure a planning system that can genuinely serve the public interest, not just short-term economic interests.”
This is not the first time that the Treasury has attempted to undermine the public interest role of planning and elevate economic ends over people and places. Commenting on Gordon Brown’s efforts to liberalise the planning system in 2004, Eric Pickles said:
“The Treasury seems … determined to loosen control to make development easier… Adding to suburban sprawl will detract from rather than help urban regeneration and Brownfield redevelopment, and fuel the migration from our towns and cities.”
He went on to say: “There has to be a greater emphasis on regenerating our towns and cities, and using previously developed Brownfield land on which to focus new development. That has the advantage of building within communities rather that over them.” 
The draft NPPF proposes to end the ‘brownfield first’ policy first introduced by the last Conservative Government in 1995.
Notes to Editors
 Eric Pickles website: http://www.ericpickles.com/newsarticle.php?id=546
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) fights for a better future for the English countryside. We work locally and nationally to protect, shape and enhance a beautiful, thriving countryside for everyone to value and enjoy. Our 57,000 members are united in their love for England’s landscapes and rural communities, and stand up for the countryside, so it can continue to sustain, enchant and inspire future generations. Founded in 1926, President: Bill Bryson, Patron: Her Majesty The Queen. www.cpre.org.uk
The purpose of this response by CPRE to the Communities and Local Government is to provide additional detail on how the National Planning Policy Framework should treat the issue of minerals planning.