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Can brownfields solve housing crisis?

By Mark Andrews | Telford | Business | Published:

Kim Fribbins is thrilled with her new home on the site of a former lorry park in Randlay.

Earlier this year the 59-year-old became one of the first tenants of Telford & Wrekin's flagship NuPlace scheme to bring brownfield sites around the borough back into use to provide much-needed housing.

While there has been some controversy about the economics of the scheme – local Conservatives believe the scheme is better handled by the private sector – few people would dispute that building houses on brownfield sites is a good idea.

Such developments are a local council's dream. The Government's stated target is for 200,000 new homes to be built every year until the end of this parliament, although the House of Lords last year said the number needed was actually 300,000. By contrast, 1.1 million new homes have been built over the past six years, averaging 183,000 a year. Developing brownfield sites not only helps local authorities meet these ever-increasing targets without encroaching on the green belt, it also brings eyesore sites back into use and brings jobs and income into the area. Little wonder councils are so keen to encourage such projects.

Indeed, a new report from the Federation of Master Builders suggests there is scope to create 300,000 to 400,000 new homes across Britain by converting vacant space above high street shops. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid has said he will look "very closely" at the report, which suggests councils should ensure planning documents make explicit reference to such development. Could this be the panacea to the housing crisis?

Probably not. While brownfield redevelopment undoubtedly has an important role to play, a new study focusing on Telford, Dudley and Sandwell suggests planners would be unwise to pin too much hope on such schemes delivering all their housing needs.

The research, sponsored by think-tank The Gracechurch Group, compared land on the new pilot brownfield registers with government housing targets – and found the viable opportunities fell well short of what was needed.

Last year, housing minister Brandon Lewis launched a pilot scheme involving 73 local authorities, including Telford, Dudley and Sandwell, which would register all brownfield sites suitable for redevelopment on a national database. From next year, all local authorities in England will be required to provide similar information.

The Gracechurch Group, a think-tank representing four companies in the planning, investment and development sectors, compared the housing need targets set by government for 67 of the pilot authorities, with the available brownfield land on the register. It found wild disparities between areas in the ability of brownfield land to meet housing need, but found that on average the amount of available land was well below that required to meet housing targets.

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Of the three West Midland authorities, Sandwell had by far the best prospect, perhaps unsurprising considering the amount of land vacated by industrial decline. The study identified 249 such sites in Sandwell, covering 1,154 acres, which could potentially yield 14,440 new homes. Given that the Government has identified a need of 1,432 homes to be built in the borough every year, Sandwell's brownfield sites have the potential need to meet demand for more than 10 years.

In Telford and Wrekin, it is estimated that there is enough brownfield land to meet the housing requirements of the next 5.4 years. The authority is said to have 272 acres of brownfield land spread across just 26 sites, with the potential to yield 2,995 homes, against an annual requirement of 555 homes. There is clearly scope for brownfield sites in both Sandwell and Telford to make a significant contribution to the housing shortfall, although whether this would be anything more than a short-term solution remains to be seen.

In Dudley, however, the figure is very different, and even if all the available brownfield sites were turned over to housing, it is identified that the supply would run out after just 22 months.

With its historic, but declining, town centre subject to the restrictions of being in a conservation area, it is perhaps more typical of a British town than the former industrial heartland of Sandwell or the purpose-built new town of Telford. The database identifies just 19 brownfield sites covering 77 acres, with the potential to provide 1,085 homes. The borough has been identified as needing 601 new homes every year, so the redevelopment of wasteland will clearly not even come close to meeting this need.

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Neil Lawson-May, of Gracechurch, says the shortage of brownfield sites is actually more acute than the figures suggest.

He points out they make no reference to the "attrition rate", where planning permission is granted but the schemes never materialise. Mr Lawson-May says this typically accounts for a third of all schemes granted permission, and needs to be factored into any projections.

He says of the 67 areas featured in the pilot study, only two would be able to meet the housing needs of the next five years through brownfield sites alone once the rate of attrition was taken into account.

"Brownfield is unevenly spread across the country and most brownfield is not in areas where there is high housing need," he says.

Part of the problem, he says, is that brownfield sites are often very small, suitable for 15 homes or fewer.

"The collapse of many small housebuilders during the credit crunch is a problem for developing small brownfield sites," he says. Extending the Government's Home Building Fund, which provides loans for small developers to kick-start housebuilding projects, would be a step in the right direction, he adds.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England is sceptical about the report, suggesting the pilot register understates the amount of suitable land. It says that small sites in town centres have been routinely disregarded by local authorities, despite having ready-made infrastructure.

Rebecca Pullinger of the CPRE says: "Up and down the country tens of thousands of small sites are not included in brownfield land registers and their housing development potential is missed.

"The current system of collecting this data must be improved if we are to unlock the potential of brownfield, and stop developers finding an excuse to build on greenfield areas."

In last month's Budget, Chancellor Philip Hammond set a target that 20 per cent of new homes should be built on small sites to ensure that brownfield sites are used efficiently.

Mr Lawson-May suggests a different approach. He says just 25 sites could provide 22 per cent of all brownfield homes in England.

"Supersites such as these should be targeted urgently and centrally to see if they are sustainable," he adds.

"If they're not, it would be better to return them to nature and build on green field than spend many years debating their future.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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