Navigating brownfield issues

The publication of a new strategy to support the reuse of brownfield land signals a renewed hope for England's legacy of sites, writes Stephen Cox

Britain’s legacy of previously developed land (PDL) has arisen due to various inter-related factors and policy instruments since WWII.

As the country’s traditional industrial and economic base eroded in the face of global competition, many of our factories and manufacturing plants closed from the 1960s onwards.

The process of economic restructuring from a manufacturing-based to a service

sector-based economy is still under way in many parts of the country, especially

the northern and peripheral regions.

Simultaneously, from the 1950s onwards, the government embarked on a policy of population dispersal, which led to new towns, expanded towns and peripheral housing estates being built around the country. These dual forces have resulted in greater demand for greenfield, undeveloped land, for housing, while the supply of brownfield, PDL, has increased.

Since the 1970s, there has been a concerted effort by politicians, policymakers and regeneration practitioners to ensure PDL is reused wherever practicable. This has been through interventions such as Urban Development Companies, Enterprise Zones, City Challenge, Urban Regeneration Companies and many others. But the results have been mixed. The level of success can be attributed to several factors:

· The skill and knowledge of those dealing with PDL in an area

· The amount of dedicated funding available to tackle the issues

· The range of barriers evident on a site and the fundamental issue of market demand and development economics

In order to give renewed impetus to the brownfield regeneration process, English Partnerships has been working on the production of a National Brownfield Strategy for the past two or three years. The strategy, entitled Brownfield Guide: A Practitioners Guide to Land Reuse in England was launched in December. This was followed by policy recommendations to ministers in February.

The scale of the brownfield legacy is massive. According to the latest estimates from the Department for Communities and Local Government, there were 63,500 hectares of PDL in 2005 – a reduction from 64,100 in 2004 and 66,000 in 2002. The location of these sites is shown in the diagram on the previous page. A rough breakdown of the type of sites making up the stock of PDL is illustrated in the table also on the previous page.

Although the stock of PDL is declining overall, and by 3% since 1991, the scale of the task remains massive. The North West contains the largest stock of vacant and derelict land while the south east has the greatest stock of land and buildings currently in use but with no planning permission or an allocation for development.

Clearly, many of these sites are not in a state that allows them to be brought back into productive use easily. And it is these more difficult sites which the Brownfield Guide is designed to focus on.

A team of specialist regeneration consultants from Atkins and Lambert Smith Hampton have been supporting the development of the strategy. They have been conducting strategic, evidence-gathering pieces of research work on the barriers to regeneration. They have been looking at the specific barriers preventing sites being brought forward for regeneration. And they have focused on a sample of 140 sites in 14 local authority areas across England. And they have investigated the economic benefits of recycling brownfield land, looking at the positive outcomes that could be achieved on around 300 sites in 30 local authority areas.

A summary of the findings of these studies is set out below.


The problems associated with contamination and development can deter development on a site and act as a significant barrier. The length of time involved in site monitoring, remediation and decommissioning can deter developers. And these sites, therefore, tend to remain undeveloped unless the public sector can remove development barriers or the market improves to such a degree that the return on investment exceeds the cost of site remediation and preparation etc. In northern and peripheral regions, the prospect of contaminated sites being reused is less than in the South-east.

Land ownership

Assembling the various title interests in land can be time-consuming and expensive. Problems can also be encountered in terms of identifying owners, leases and licences, ransom strips, multiple ownerships, unrealistic sale value expectations of the owners and owners who refuse to sell. The development industry will look for less complicated sites where the ownership and assembly barriers are too great. Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPO) can help. But they too can be problematic, expensive and are therefore often seen as a last resort.


Site accessibility is important in terms of the ability for people to get to work, for customers to get to a location, and for goods to be delivered. Public transport access is also important for residents to go about their daily business, too. Poor infrastructure can also deter planning permission being granted if the scale of development can not be adequately serviced.


A significant volume of PDL sites sit within areas of market failure and low demand where the costs of site preparation and construction are greater than the returns that may be achieved. Public-sector grant aid is often available to assist in this process but is perceived as being bureaucratic and difficult and therefore a further barrier to regeneration.


Over time, there is potential for vacant sites to become colonised by species of flora and fauna attracted to the undisturbed nature of the site or is particular soil conditions. These sites may then be given different forms of protected status, which slows down the development process and can even render sites unsuitable for development.


Heritage sites, including listed buildings, World Heritage Sites, ancient monuments, battlefields, historic parks and gardens, do not preclude development. But they do often require special consents and are material considerations in the planning process.

But heightened costs are not the sole barrier for heritage sites being developed. They often contribute to a local feeling of place and community, and act as landmarks. Local residents can often be opposed to them being redeveloped or changed in any way.


Within the planning, regeneration and development professions, there is a skills gap in terms of the ability to deal with issues of CPOs, remediation and large-scale external funding bids. The existence of this barrier is linked to a lack of vision and aspiration in some areas, which is more difficult to address.

Socio-economic barriers

Socio-economic barriers are difficult to quantify but they do have an impact on market demand and profile of an area. The better the socio-economic base, the more desirable an area will be for developers and vice versa. Skills deficits in an area can also counter against inward investment and development projects taking place.

Development economics

Developers now generally work to a profit on cost of something like 20%. If end sales values are high enough to cover this profit margin, then developers will be prepared to consider paying for remediation, land assembly, environmental considerations, good design, etc.

But, if the end sales values do not cover this profit margin, then developers will simply look elsewhere. Therefore, the fundamental issue of development economics and site profitability are the core barrier to regeneration. This is particularly an issue in areas of market failure and low demand.

Derelict or PDL is often thought of as a legacy of the industrial revolution and associated industrial processes. This is only part of the picture. While a portion of the stock of PDL has been lying vacant and derelict since the nation industrialised, the overall total stock of PDL has been added to over time and is continuing to be added to.

Even if success is achieved in reusing more of the stock of PDL, the process that leads to land falling out of productive use in the future will continue. This is due to structural changes in the economy, locational preferences of business and investors, technological advances, socio-economic change and policy instruments. The difference in the future will be that the Brownfield Guide will provide advice and guidance to practitioners as they grapple with the complex issues around brownfield redevelopment and regeneration.

Stephen Cox is head of regeneration and economic development at Atkins.

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