Brownfield developments: an unattractive prospect?

The very term 'brownfield' suggests an unattractive prospect - dirty and unproductive - especially by comparison with the image of sunlit acres conjured up by the alternative: 'greenfield'.

However, we are stuck with the name, so the only option is to overcome these preconceptions about former industrial land. The battle to build on green belt will probably never end, but it will get tougher to win. The British government has decreed that 60 per cent of new development should be on brownfield land, and now has a ‘brownfield first’ policy for new developments.

This is not such bad news. Brownfield developments can be very attractive, especially with government incentives and tax breaks, which add up to £1bn over five years and developers can get accelerated tax credits for the clean-up costs. There can also be logistical advantages for occupiers of renovated sites compared with greenfield locations. New sites may be poorly served by public transport and far from population centres which affects recruiting staff and attracting retail customers.

Still, developers are often dubious about taking on the remediation costs and risks of polluted land. Developers complain that landowners of old industrial sites see the increased pressure to use their land as an opportunity to increase the price to a level which does not fit with the costs of clean-up and redevelopment. Uncertainty about planning approvals and clean-up procedures can also deter potential developers. Local authorities are sometimes reluctant to sanction change, even if this would bring economic and physical improvements to the area.

Ignorance about clean-up procedures and costs may also be a problem, sometimes exacerbated by lack of information about any previous work on the land. Each site presents different challenges which means the most appropriate treatment is not always obvious.

The costs can indeed be substantial, but when these challenges are addressed effectively, the rewards – both financial and environmental – can be significant.

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