Paul Walton, director of PWA Planning, discusses the role of Brownfield Land Registers and whether brownfield sites can deliver the new homes the country needs.
Brownfield sites have enough space for more than a million new homes, according to research from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). Its study suggests local planning authorities have identified more than 17,000 brownfield sites, covering over 28,000 hectares of land.
Whilst there is enormous potential for brownfield land to help solve the country’s increasingly critical housing shortage, securing planning permission to build new homes on a brownfield site is far from straightforward – and viability and other considerations continue to limit the value of the registers, in spite of the government’s intentions.
What are Brownfield Land Registers designed to do?
Brownfield Land Registers were brought in by the government in 2017 to promote the development of more brownfield sites and each register comprises two sections.
Part one identifies all previously developed sites the local planning authority thinks are suitable for residential development, irrespective of current planning status. Even so, planning permission must still be obtained before development can happen.
Part two of a Brownfield Land Register is designed to enable planning authorities to fast-track the development process, thereby maximising the number of brownfield sites available. This means a site can be granted ‘Permission in Principle’, which is a similar planning status to being given a local plan allocation.
Encouraging though this is, there are major question marks hanging over the effectiveness of Brownfield Land Registers in meaningfully helping to resolve the housing crisis.
The limitations of the land registers
This is in part because Permission in Principle still leaves complex technical issues – for example, design, drainage and highways impacts – to be dealt with later in the process. For many developers the costs of remediating brownfield sites, especially those sites with contamination issues such as former industrial sites, can make a considerable number of schemes unviable.
When the government introduced the registers, ministers hoped the granting of Permission in Principle would encourage developers to bring forward brownfield sites as a result of a lower-risk environment. Although de-risking the principle of developing homes on a particular site is a positive outcome in attracting developers, further thought needs to be given to how it might be possible to quantify and overcome key constraints to site development, as this will often be the key to unlocking development potential.
So far at least, the principal benefit of Brownfield Land Registers – the granting of Permission in Principle – has not been grasped effectively by local planning authorities or by developers.
What should happen going forward?
If the Brownfield Land Registers are to play a more meaningful role in helping to deliver the homes the country needs so urgently, planning authorities need greater encouragement, as well as financial and policy resources to respond to some of the key viability issues which bedevil brownfield sites.
The government needs to look carefully at the issues which have meant that the brownfield land registers have played a mere ‘bit-part’ in the drive to deliver more homes. A change in the mechanisms for charging CIL or other planning contributions in respect of ‘register sites’ may help to unlock some of this potential by incentivising developers to choose these sites over other less demanding ‘greenfield sites’.