Posted by: Colin Wiles24/10/2011
During the debate on the draft national planning policy framework one of the key demands of the National Trust and other opponents has been that the old ‘brownfield first’ policy should be restored. I think that would be wrong, and here’s why.
If you recall, the last government set a target that 60 per cent of all new homes should be provided on brownfield sites. Until June 2010, back gardens were included in the definition of brownfield. As a result, up to 50 per cent of all new homes were built not on genuine brownfield sites but on back gardens. The results of this policy were disastrous – it pitted neighbour against neighbour, developers against neighbourhoods and led to mistrust, jealousy and rancour in communities up and down the country. It increased the density of residential areas (not always a bad thing), added to local traffic, and increased the level of water run-off.
According to the HCA there are 64,000 hectares of brownfield land in England – enough to build over two million homes, except that not all of the land is suitable for housing – for example some of the larger sites are former airfields in the middle of nowhere. However, most commentators accept that current and future brownfield land could accommodate perhaps two to three million new homes over the next twenty years. But because we need to build at least five million homes over this period (due to population and household growth) that still leaves two to three million new homes that would have to be built on greenfield sites.
So far so good. But the NPPF sets out a clear structure of local and neigbourhood plans that will allow local communities to identify the areas they want to protect and the areas they want to develop. In truth, most local plans will inevitably target brownfield sites for development but setting a top-down, national target for brownfield development would nullify the whole point of the localist approach. For example, communities may decide that a brownfield site on their patch has an amenity value in its own right – it may harbour wildlife, or preserve vistas, or they may want to turn it into an urban park or playspace or to extend an existing park. They may also decide that housing development would be best provided beyond the edge of the urban area on unaesthetic scrubland that is technically classified as countryside. The brownfield first policy would stop them taking such an approach. What’s more, the provisions in the NPPF for Neighbourhood Development Orders will allow parishes and neighbourhood forums to grant planning permission and to capture some of the uplift in land values (through the Community Infrastructure Levy) for the benefit of their own communities – to fund a new community centre, provide better street lighting etc. These orders will be a key tool in getting communities on side with the whole notion of local development. If they are forced to consider the brownfield sites first it takes away their right to plan in a creative and sustainable way and will make communities less likely to think positively about the needs of their areas.
Two of the key aims of the NPPF are (supposedly) to simplify the planning system, and put it back in the hands of the people. Whatever your political persuasion I think that’s worth defending. “Brownfield first” takes planning away from the people and puts it back into the hands of planning officers. It should be rejected.
From Inside out
An independent look at the housing sector and beyond from Colin Wiles