Environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth (FoE) believes the target is achievable but only if central government provides more guidance and assistance to local planning authorities, particularly in the case of clean-up policy for contaminated land.

The latest statistics from the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) show that the proportion of new residences being built on brownfield sites has not risen significantly:

  • in 1997, 52% of new dwellings were built on previously-developed land
  • percentages for brownfield building have remained close to 50% since data began to be collected in 1989
  • in 1997, an additional 3% of new dwellings were the result of building conversions – warehouses or office blocks being turned into homes and houses being converted into flats
  • a total of 55% of new dwellings in 1997 were created out of existing buildings or built on previously-developed land

Releasing the statistics, Planning Minister Nick Raynsford restated the Government’s target to raise brownfield housing development to 60%. “These new figures provide a benchmark for monitoring progress towards this target,” said Raynsford. “The fact that the figure has stood at about 55% for several years shows that the target is challenging, but I believe achievable. The amount of recycling [of land] varies significantly between regions, confirming the Government’s view that our overall target needs to be underpinned by regional targets which are being set by the Regional Planning Committees.”

Raynsford said that a revised Planning Guidance Note will be published early next year outlining how brownfield policy can be delivered “on the ground”.

FoE supports the Government’s brownfield target but acknowledges that local planning authorities will need a considerable amount of assistance in the next few years. “Can they meet the 60% brownfield target? Yes, they can,” Tony Bosworth, FoE’s housing campaigner told edie. “If we pulled out all the stops we could even reach 75% brownfield building. But the 60% target won’t be achieved unless the Government changes policy.”

Bosworth believes a range of changes and improvements to planning and building policy needs to be made in the near future, including:

  • fiscal changes, so that the current VAT exemption on materials for building on greenfield sites is removed and given, instead, to brownfield building or conversion work
  • a coherent policy on contaminated land clean-up
  • financial and other incentives to clean-up contaminated land
  • implementation guidance on the ‘sequential approach’, the concept that councils release green belt land for housebuilding only after all brownfield land has been used up
  • a requirement that councils conduct Urban Capacity Studies to determine exactly how much building will fit by looking at empty properties, conversion of commercial buildings, building on underused car parks and determining whether brownfield land zoned for industrial and commercial development really will be snapped up by business
  • a lower requirement on minimum car-parking spaces for residential development (see related story)

On the contaminated land issue, Bosworth agrees that the Government needs to work hard and fast. “The Government is going to have to get its act together on contaminated land,” says Bosworth, who believes that unlike some areas, such as conversions of warehouses and office blocks, no real progress will be made on contaminated land unless the Government sets out comprehensive policy. FoE would also like to see incentives provided for cleaning-up contaminated land as a way of kick-starting the industry.

Discussing the future of urban development, Bosworth states the current average of 25 dwellings per hectare is going to have to increase. “We see no problem with 40 dwellings per hectare, and even higher in inner cities and near public transport,” says Bosworth. “And high density doesn’t mean high rise.” FoE argues that tower blocks actually offer a lower housing density than 3 or 4 story Georgian-style flats because tower blocks require so much land around them.

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