Making best use of the nation’s scarce supply of land

Finding the right balance when tackling the growing need for development while protecting the British countryside can be a tricky business, but brownfield goes far beyond affordable housing, as Kirk Howe, Operations Director of the Strategic Joint Ventures Division of English Partnerships explains.

English Partnerships is the national regeneration agency supporting high quality sustainable growth across the country. One of our core business areas is to act as the government s specialist advisor on brownfield or previously developed land (PDL). We are also a key delivery vehicle for the urban renaissance and the Deputy Prime Minister s Sustainable Communities Plan.

One of the main aspects of the Plan is to ensure we are making best use of the nation s scarce supply of land. We have been given responsibility for producing and maintaining the National Brownfield Strategy on behalf of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) to ensure that as much new development as possible is accommodated on previously developed land. An integral part of the work on the Strategy will be to look at mechanisms to bring contaminated land back into productive use.

Re-using contaminated land

In November 2003, English Partnerships published Towards a National Brownfield Strategy, the most comprehensive study ever undertaken to assess the state of England s brownfield land supply. The study highlights the huge potential to recycle brownfield land to meet government housing growth targets while reducing the pressure to develop on the countryside.

The report concludes that more than 20,000 ha of brownfield or previously developed land (nearly one-third of the total) has been identified as being available for redevelopment. Almost one-third of the brownfield land identified is within the key “growth area” regions of Greater London and the South East and East of England.

Work on the next stage of the National Brownfield Strategy is being taken forward by ODPM and English Partnerships through a joint project team. This team will be led by Professor Paul Syms, who will be joining English Partnerships in October 2004 from his post as Professor of Urban Land Use at Sheffield Hallam University. It is expected that the Strategy will be published in Summer 2005 and will serve as a best practice guide and toolkit for practitioners involved in the reuse of previously developed land.

Developing region to region

The National Land Use Database (NLUD), which we helped to create, contains information about previously developed, vacant and derelict land and buildings. It is the first countrywide source of statistics on the number, type and planning status of previously developed sites and is a vital source of data for the production of the National Brownfield Strategy.

In addition, we are supporting the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) in the creation of their Brownfield Land Action Plans aimed at speeding up brownfield delivery, especially in the four major growth areas. These plans will propose methods of making better use of brownfield land to deliver regional economic and housing strategies, as well as identifying new development opportunities and different ways to tackle the problems caused by long-term dereliction. Two pilot sub-regional action plans have been undertaken in the North West; one in East Lancashire one in part of Greater Manchester. It is intended that these plans will form a basis of best practice for other RDAs.

The government is committed to making the best possible use of its own property assets and through English Partnerships; a Register of Surplus Public Sector Land has been created in collaboration with the RDAs, government departments and other public sector organisations. The Register will provide a single reference point for all participating public sector organisations and help ensure that wider government objectives, including housing need and regional economic strategies, are factored into land disposal decisions.

Brownfield goes beyond housing

Not all previously developed land is suitable for recycling as plots for housing or commercial development due to factors such as contamination, ground conditions of location. However, many do have huge potential as safe green amenity sites such as woodland, parks, commons, nature areas and other public open spaces. The Land Restoration Trust (LRT) was established in 2004 to restore and manage brownfield land for use as public green space. The LRT is a partnership of English Partnerships, Groundwork, the Forestry Commission and the Environment Agency and has the backing of ODPM through the Sustainable Communities Plan.

One of our most successful countrywide projects to date is the 10-year £385m National Coalfields Programme. Since the programme began in 1996, significant progress has been made in addressing economic, environmental and social issues in former coalfield communities, which were characterised by huge job losses, contamination and dereliction following the pit closures of the 1980s and 1990s. The Programme will help to create new uses for around 4,000 ha of former colliery/coking works land. In addition, 27 sites from the portfolio will be reassigned to the Land Restoration Trust to be transformed into sustainable green spaces.

Success stories

Further examples of our commitment to cleaning up heavily contaminated sites include the Greenwich Peninsula in London and Middlehaven in Middlesbrough.

In 1997, English Partnerships began the task of transforming the Greenwich Peninsula – previously the site of the largest gas works in Europe – into a thriving, 21st Century community. It is the largest development site in London and one of Europe s biggest regeneration projects. Over £200 million has been invested by English Partnerships in acquiring, reclaiming and developing the Peninsula site and in 2001, we received an environmental award in recognition of our pioneering environmental work.

Middlehaven, an 80-acre former docks adjacent to Middlesbrough town centre, is a mixed-use regeneration project where English Partnerships is working with Middlesbrough Council, One Northeast and Tees Valley Regeneration. Following the recent completion of an £18 million reclamation and restoration contract for the dock basin and surrounding land, a regeneration site covering over 15 ha has been prepared for commercial and residential development. The initial phase of the project is expected to comprise a new business park, exclusive waterside residential development and a range of community and leisure facilities.

A bright future

As well as being involved in physical regeneration, we also support organisations such as Contaminated Land: Applications in Real Environments (CL:AIRE), a public-private partnership devoted to finding innovative solutions for dealing with contaminated land. Enabling cost-effective land remediation techniques to be tested under real site conditions, it acts as an important link for the UK´s main players in contaminated land reclamation. Through stimulating new partnerships and projects, and matching them with suitable sites, CL:AIRE can then achieve environmental objectives in its development and re-use of derelict, contaminated sites.

Part of English Partnerships role is to disseminate the lessons learned from our initiatives to inspire a better way of life for the communities we serve. By sharing our experiences of best practice in land de-contamination and remediation, we aim to make England a better place to live and limit the impact of building much-needed housing on our precious countryside.

Kirk Howe, Operations Director, Strategic Joint Ventures Division. For more information about English Partnerships, please visit:

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie