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Report: Not enough brownfield land capacity to meet housing demand

Words: Laura Edgar
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If every piece of land on councils’ brownfield land registers were to be built on, this capacity equates to just 31 per cent of the 4.5 million new homes needed over the next 15 years to meet demand, reveals a report.

Banking on Brownfield finds that building on brownfield land is not the solution to the housing emergency even if “significant” government support were forthcoming.

Published by the Land Promoters and Developers Federation (LPDF) and put together by planning consultancy Lichfields, the study considers whether previously developed land can supply enough of the right type of homes in the right places. The conclusion is that it is not possible.

The organisations explain that the analysis comes in response to the levelling up white paper, speeches at the 2021 Conservative Party Conference, and the £1.5 billion brownfield housing fund – all of which suggest that such land will satisfy housing need.

According to the report, the estimated capacity for land on brownfield registers is 1.4 million. This is the figure after 58,000 have been disregarded for double counting.

Of the potential homes on the registers, 48 per cent are estimated to be flats. However, 17 per cent of households are likely to live in flats.

Other statistics in the report include:

  • 23,500 individual site entries on Brownfield Registers (after 1,000 are deducted owing to double counting).
  • 1 to 27 – the ratio of one new brownfield house (as opposed to flats) to every 27 households likely to live in houses.
  • 57 per cent of brownfield capacity outside the greater South East (GSE) is within the two least viable quintiles (20 per cent) of local authority planning areas (compared with less than 3 per cent of those in the GSE).
  • 68 per cent of the Housing Market Areas (HMAs) with more brownfield capacity (relative to their housing need) are already more affordable than average.
  • There were 132,000 net housing additions built in England in 2001 when ‘brownfield first’ was the dominant national housing supply policy objective (compared with 234,000 per annum on average over the last three years).

Banking on Brownfield states that brownfield registers suggest that 81 per cent of new homes that could be delivered in 19 urban authorities with uplifted housing requirements will be at apartment densities, rather than family houses. It goes on to highlight that there are viability challenges in these areas that could contribute to the limited delivery of affordable homes.

Paul Brocklehurst, chairman of the LPDF, said: “If the government wants to meet its target of building 300,000 homes each year, no source of land can be ‘off the table’. Our analysis in this report shows that there is simply not enough brownfield land in any part of the country to meet housing needs alone.

“The reorientation of housing policy, and Homes England efforts towards brownfield regeneration, may help support the conditions where viable and developable land can come forward, but many of these sites will also require grants to unlock them, at greater expense to the taxpayer. Even with this policy support, greenfield land development will still be needed in every region, to meet current housing need.”

He noted the ever-present competition for urban land, markedly between economic and residential uses. “Our research finds the opportunity cost of prioritising brownfield land for housing rather than employment is significant in pricing out industrial and office development to potentially suboptimal locations.”

Matthew Spry, senior director and head of Lichfield’s London office, said: "Our analysis shows that even if all identified brownfield land could be viably developed, we are a long way from being able to rely on it as the supply-side solution to the housing crisis.

“And, in reality, this theoretical capacity cannot all be delivered: much capacity is tied up in complex estate regeneration projects, or is best suited for continued industrial use, or includes contaminated land, or is in areas where development won’t be viable. Many brownfield sites are also earmarked for apartments, when the overwhelming demand is for houses with gardens.

“While brownfield land will form an important part of the mix, the experience of the late 1990s tells us that banking on brownfield will lead to a sharp fall in new housebuilding and undersupply in every region. Local planning authorities should plan positively for brownfield development but accompany this with a realistic supply of land of all types, capable of delivering the right type of homes, and where and when they are most needed.”

The report also notes that brownfield registers do have shortcomings, in particular in evaluating the quantum of developable land overall, which makes them an unreliable basis for policymakers to decide on the number of homes that can be built in different areas.

Banking on Brownfield can be found on the Land Promoters and Developers Federation website (pdf). 

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