A raft of conflicting legislation has led to widespread confusion over remediation. The Government has made much of its desire to promote the use of these sites for new housing – setting targets and offering 150% tax relief as an incentive for developers to build on them. But with the Barker Review of Housing Supply’s call for more new housing, can brownfield development continue to host 60% of new housing in line with government targets?

Mixed signals over the Government’s commitment to urban regeneration have caused controversy over the amount of greenfield development in growth areas and uncertainty over which direction policy and development will take. The Barker Review in 2004 called for 70,000 to 120,000 more new houses a year – a demand that far exceeds the available brownfield space. This means that more greenfield sites will have to be used if these figures are to be matched.

Craig Sillars, managing director of Churngold Remediation, doesn’t think this signals an end for land remediation. “I wouldn’t say there will be a decrease in the use of brownfield”, he says. “But the fact that the percentage of new housing will increase, means that, conversely, the percentage of contaminated land reuse will probably decrease.”

This may mean it will be difficult for the Government to keep to its target figures of 60% brownfield development by 2008. Brownfield development has already exceeded government targets, two years early (currently at 70%). These figures have their sceptics though. Recent reports describe a trend for ‘garden grabbing’, which refers to developers building on peoples’ back gardens.

True brownfield?

These sites are classified as brownfield but are not contaminated. Therefore they need no remediation but boost government figures. This kind of development is juxtaposed with ministers’ aims to protect the countryside as they embark on their massive homebuilding programme. While there may not be a quick-fix solution to classification issues, the House Builders Federation (HBF) has one idea for how regulation can play catch up.

“In terms of day-to-day regulatory issues, in some cases there are long delays from resource-stretched regulators reviewing reports, which often has significant consequences in terms of development programmes,” explains Ian Heasman, brownfield remediation manager at Taylor Woodrow, who is part of the HBF contaminated land sub-group.

“Our proposal is to supplement the resource of regulators. We would like to see the Specialists in Land Condition scheme extended to include a recognised qualification for consultants to supplement regulatory work. In many cases, developers would be happy to pay for this process as it would be much cheaper than holding up construction for a couple of months.

“Response to this proposal has been mostly positive although everyone involved realises that buy-in from all corners is needed if a scheme like this is going to work.”

Two new initiatives in relation to waste regulation and remediation that came into place in April held out hope for easing the confusion and bureaucracy surrounding the treatment of contaminated land. These were the new mobile treatment licensing system, which allows contractors to hold one licence for multiple remediation technologies on multiple sites, and the Environment Agency’s guidance on waste material handling in a construction context.

“Unfortunately the latter document has been severely compromised by its reliance on output from the beleaguered National Brownfield Strategy. And the broadly supported HBF proposal on using the planning system as the Waste Framework Directive permit appears hampered by government inaction,” explains Heasman.

Predicting that which is yet to come is never easy. Savills’ Autumn 2005 research document – ‘Land issues: future residential development land supply’ – gives it a go when it asks where the future of land supply lies. It concludes that brownfield development is not the answer. It surmises: “If new housing supply is to be maintained, let alone increased, a politically unpalatable fact has to be faced – alternatives to brownfield sites will have to be found.”

Policy adds to confusion

Just to add to the confusion, a whole new raft of legislation is due to pour into this somewhat uneasy climate. The Environmental Liability Directive is due in April 2007 and will be hotly pursued by both the Groundwater Framework and the Soil Framework Directive. No-one is quite sure how this will affect the future of brownfield development. But perhaps some of these worries will be unsubstantiated.

Fears that the implementation of the EU Landfill Directive would put a halt to the rise of brownfield development turned out largely to be unfounded. Heasman says: “The Landfill Directive is a positive initiative for remediation contractors. It has pushed up the price of hazardous waste disposal twice, but it is now heading back down again. One of the factors for developers is cost. The higher the landfill cost, the more likely we are to use alternative technologies.”

Whatever the outlook for brownfield sites, one thing is for sure: it will be some time before remediation contractors and developers are looking at a straightforward guidance process for dealing with contaminated land.

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