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Wasted spaces become living spaces sooner than you think

Wasted spaces become living spaces sooner than you think Photo © Dicasa/

CPRE is well known for campaigning to use brownfield sites for new housing. We believe that by doing this we can avoid unnecessary urban sprawl and loss of valuable countryside.

Paul Miner blogSince the 1990s, huge strides have been taken in making use of brownfield sites, with regeneration taking place in large areas of Birmingham, London, Manchester and other cities.

But national planning policies no longer prioritise brownfield redevelopment to the same degree as they did in the 1990s and 2000s. Is this leading to greenfield development crowding out brownfield development – and is brownfield development still a viable option?  New research for CPRE by construction analysts Glenigan has looked at these questions.

Brownfield development is commonly assumed to be much slower than greenfield. There are clearly often additional upfront expenses involved, such as remediating or removing contamination. We decided it would be helpful to see what was actually happening and test those assumptions.

The research and the results are set out on our website but the big news is that brownfield sites are developed more quickly than greenfield, once they have planning permission.

Glenigan compared the speed of housing development on 696 brownfield sites with development on 269 greenfield sites, once these sites were granted planning permission. Overall the projects were expected to deliver 69,415 houses. The 15 local authorities, all outside London, they looked at were chosen to give a geographical spread, and to include cases where there would be significant amounts of both greenfield and brownfield development in the planning pipeline.

Brownfield land accounted for 63% of houses with an active planning consent during the three years to March 2015, but 70% of the houses that had been completed by the end of that time. Both brownfield and greenfield sites took an average of 29 weeks to start after receiving planning permission. However, brownfield sites were then much quicker to develop once work had started: brownfield sites took an average of 63 weeks to be completed in comparison with 92 weeks for greenfield sites – more than six months quicker on average.

The finding that brownfield sites were faster from permission to completion was consistent for all site sizes. The figure below shows the breakdown by size of scheme.

homes completed brownfield greenfield timeline graphic 522x265

Number of weeks taken for projects to be completed following planning approval, by size of scheme.

The effect looks like being even more startling for larger sites (50 or more units). However, as there was a smaller sample of these it’s hard to draw firm conclusions on why that might be until more research is done.  Some sites were stalled but relatively few, and that affected both brownfield and greenfield; the number of units represented by stalled or cancelled sites is roughly the same proportion for both (around 4%). We don’t know why that’s happening at the moment but we need to understand that better, too.

We were, however, prompted to look more closely at some of the local authorities surveyed - Cheshire East, Durham, and Salford – that have tried to prioritise the redevelopment of brownfield sites in their local area. They’ve attempted to prevent the development of greenfield sites in areas close to brownfield sites that have planning permission but where building has not yet started. Yet during the years surveyed by Glenigan, planning inspectors have allowed appeals by developers to build on greenfield sites on the basis that there is no evidence that releasing additional greenfield sites undermines the development of brownfield that has already received planning permission.  

In that time, just over 2,000 houses have been built on greenfield sites in these areas. Such a loss of greenfield land looks to be unnecessary when Glenigan’s data shows that in each area the development that has taken place could have been on further brownfield sites with planning permission instead.

In a Parliamentary debate on 26 February 2016, Housing and Planning Minister Brandon Lewis said: ‘The [National Planning Policy] framework…makes it clear that local authorities should prioritise suitable brownfield land wherever practicable.’ Our research makes it clear that ministers need to strengthen planning policy on brownfield because, at present, the NPPF is often not working in the way that Ministers say they intend.

Overall, our findings suggest that the Government’s pledge to invest £2.2billion on brownfield regeneration in two new housing development funds and to establish a brownfield register are necessary and worthwhile investments. But other Government proposals, such as forcing local authorities to release more sites for development if housing targets are not met, are unlikely to have a direct impact on the overall numbers of new homes provided – the Government’s stated aim for its plans. Instead, releasing more land is likely to lead to developers cherry-picking increased amounts of greenfield sites.

It’s clear from all this that we need a stronger focus on bringing brownfield land forward for development. Glenigan’s research shows that investing in brownfield will help speed up the rates of housebuilding in the way the Government wants, and help minimise the unnecessary loss of our countryside.

Find out more

Read the Brownfield sites developed six months faster than greenfield sites news release

View the From Wasted Space to Living Spaces report

View Paul's profile


It’s clear from all this that we need a stronger focus on bringing brownfield land forward for development.

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