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Green Belt Versus Brownfield Land Development

By Expert Author: Chris Westerman

Does land development in the UK boil down to green belt versus brownfields?

The national housing crisis in the UK is blamed by many on restrictions to green belt development. The solutions, however, may be worked out through localism.

There is much debate in the United Kingdom over different solutions for the housing shortage. One part of the argument has to do with the dearth of financing available to both builder-developers and potential homebuyers (although the government is dealing with this latter point through schemes such as Help-To-Buy). Another part has to do with government directives on where to build: in green belt areas or on brownfield land.

The UK green belt policies reach back to the 1930s, when political leaders adopted a policy to prevent suburban sprawl. These policies effectively kept a ring of forests, agriculture and undeveloped land around many of the towns of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

But the total population of the country has changed dramatically in the eight decades since, as have a host of economic factors. Not only has industry and population expansion created evermore-dense towns, but a housing crisis has developed due to an unfortunate confluence of factors in the past decade: immigration, a higher birth rate, seniors living longer, and the recession.

Total population growth in England and Wales has been at about 7 percent the past decade, adding more than 3.7 million people since the turn of the century. But the financial crisis of 2008 and the resultant recession have been consequential as well. Banks are reluctant to loan money to developers, just as they have not been lending to homebuyers. New home building is at the lowest rate, as a portion of population, in 100 years. Meanwhile, multiple generations of families are sharing housing while they wait for conditions to change – specifically, for more homes to be built.

So the question in broad brush drills down to this: when the economy recovers, where will home building happen?

Directives to build brown – and the problems that presents

PDLs, (Previously Developed Land) in the towns, offer an alternative to green belt building. Also called “brownfield” sites, this is where land is vacant or occupied by vacant and decrepit buildings, or perhaps zoned for commercial and industrial purposes but sitting empty – seemingly providing opportunities to build. This is land that is contained within the green belt rings, closer to town centres and on the grid of existing utilities. These conditions make it easy to develop property, and would provide a vital, urban lifestyle to residents – and consistency with the green belt ideals of the 20th century, right?

Around the year 2000 a government commission led by acclaimed architect, Lord Richard Rogers strongly encouraged building new housing on brownfield lands, in part as a strategy to avoid green belt development. The commission acknowledged that 3.8 million new homes would be needed by 2012.

Builder & Engineer magazine weighed in on the topic more recently and they aren’t in complete agreement with that approach. The publication cites how building over the past decade has been at 160,000 to 200,000 new homes per year (and less in 2012, with a reported 21,540 new starts in the second quarter, which would annualise at about 86,000 units). Why so slow? They cite the observations of Richard Simmons, who is managing director of the Construction Centre and also a property developer.

“I think it is because brownfield is pretty slow to come to market by the time you’ve done all the testing,” says Simmons. “You have to spend a lot of money first assessing the site. Firstly you have the desktop study where they look for what contaminants are in the ground and their assessment reveals whether remediation is needed or not, which can be expensive. As a developer you are always thinking that there might be the cost of evaluating a site that might go wrong, so it’s not as easy as building on a farmer’s field.”

Not all brownfield land is contaminated, counters the British Property Foundation. A spokesman for the organisation explained that the broader definition of brownfield is PDL, which simply means it was built upon in the past. “Green building isn’t necessarily plush green land,” the spokesperson told Builder & Engineer. “It can often be nasty and derelict.”

The green belt solution?

The Daily Telegraph published an opinion piece in August 2012 largely in support of green belt preservation. It cites Housing Minister Grant Shapps’ stated support for development outside of green belt lands. Still, the newspaper acknowledges the importance of housing and the mixed picture created by the Localism Act of 2011:

“Protecting the green belt is not easy: it is in the nature of economically vibrant towns to sprawl into the countryside, and only the green belt stands in the way. Moreover, the Government’s support for the green belt can clash with its commitment to localism, as many local authorities want to build on it or causally redraw its boundaries.”

The media watchdog group FullFact.org took its own look at the scenario in September 2012 and finds a more mixed view. The group critically examined claims by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, CPRE, which are that brownfield land in England was sufficient for the construction of 1.5 million new residences.

But a closer look at the available land found something much less, says FullFact.org. Overall, there are 61,920 hectares of brownfield land in the UK, as compared to 1.6 million hectares of green belt property. A little more than half – 54 percent – of the brownfield sites are vacant or hold derelict buildings. Only the remaining 46 percent, approximately 30,000 hectares, of brownfields are truly available for repurposing and building without displacing a current occupant. This does not distinguish the portion of those brownfields that are truly appropriate and feasible for housing: many are contaminated with industrial waste, while others are situated in industrial corridors, where it would be difficult to attract residents to live.

For all of us, including those involved in UK land investment as well as those looking at investing in real assets, it may ultimately prove to be an argument that offers no national solution, as housing needs and philosophies about green belt vs. brownfield land may differ from town to town. Which in the end may be the ultimate benefit of the Localism Act.

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