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2 February 2022

Bringing the brownfields back to life: will the plan to level up housing work?

Digging into the data shows derelict land alone is unlikely to solve the housing crisis.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Sickeningly high mortgages, stomach-churning rents and nauseating numbers on council house waiting lists are all symptoms of Britain’s ailing housing sector.

For over a decade successive Conservative governments have been looking in vain for an antidote. The pandemic only made things worse, with the average house earning more than the average worker in its first year.

Acute housing need is particularly prevalent in the north-east and north-west of England: key areas of focus for the government’s levelling up agenda.

A white paper outlining the government’s plan to rebalance the economy reveals that housebuilding will be concentrated on brownfield sites — disused, previously developed land:

The ‘80/20 rule’ which leads to 80 per cent of government funding for housing supply being directed at ‘maximum affordability areas’ — in practice, London and the South East — will be scrapped, with much of the £1.8bn brownfield funding instead being diverted to transforming brownfield sites in the North and Midlands. The metro mayors will be allocated £120m of this funding.”

While this switch from building in southern constituencies to derelict parts of the north and Midlands suggests a focus on the electorally key Red Wall, it also suggests a retreat for fear of losing the support of traditional Tory voters in places like the Home Counties who oppose looser planning rules. As my colleague Harry Lambert reports: “Johnson is especially ill-placed to confront his southern MPs now that he is reliant on their support to stay in office.”

[See also: Who made more this year: you or your house?]

Britain has a lot of out-of-use, rotting land that serves little to no function other than being an eyesore. Old factories, condemned schools, disused recreation grounds and other types of dormant land are known as brownfield.

Data by Michael Goodier

While it is not clear that it would enough on its own, a vast amount of this land could be given a new lease of life. A report published last year by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), the countryside charity, found that there was enough brownfield land for 1.3m new homes, a 9.5 per cent increase on the total from 2020.

Cumulatively, there is the potential to develop 471,471 homes across the north and Midlands, according to the CPRE data:

“Over the last three years, 75-plus per cent of the homes that have been built in the West Midlands have been on brownfield land,” Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, told the New Statesman. In 2016 the West Midlands Combined Authority set a target of building 215,000 new homes in the region over a 15-year period, which will be primarily achieved through brownfield development.

“There are probably three critical reasons why this is the right thing to do,” said Street. “Number one, any brownfield redevelopment, of course, is a greenfield saved and we know that that's absolutely critical, in terms of tackling climate change, by protecting the greenbelt.

[See also: How to crash the housing market]

“The second reason is that it often brings back to life communities that have literally been derelict for decades. The third reason is that they're much more sustainable communities in every sense. It gives us an opportunity to think about [housing] density, housing types. We've done the right thing to make them usable and, of course, affordable as well.”

However, the West Midlands — a region with levelling up potential — does not reflect the wider picture in Britain.

Central to Britain's housing crisis is the sheer amount that needs to be built to satisfy demand: estimates have put that figure as high as 345,000 new homes a year.

In his 2019 manifesto Boris Johnson pledged that his government would build 300,000 new homes a year, a target that the government has consistently failed to achieve and is now thought to be almost impossible. In 2019/20 (the most recently available data), housing stock increased by 244,000 homes, about 1 per cent higher than the previous year, continuing on a slow upwards trajectory that nevertheless has not met demand.

“The housing crisis is exceptionally bad,” Marie Chadwick, the policy leader at the National Housing Federation, said. Chadwick attributes most of today’s problems to a lack of availability of affordable social housing, which is about 50 per cent cheaper than that of the private rental market. “We've not seen investments historically in social housing that's desperately needed to address this issue,” she said. “It's a crisis and I don't say that lightly. It's having such an impact on families and individuals across the country.”

[See also: Why the pandemic is not making your rent cheaper]

In September 2020 Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary at the time, announced the £11.5bn Affordable Housing Programme, which aims to build 180,000 new homes, half to be “affordable”, between 2021 and 2026. In terms of brownfield development Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, announced a £1.8bn Brownfield Redevelopment Fund in the autumn 2021 budget, which is slated to create 116,000 new homes, and has now been promoted again in the levelling up white paper.

This may not go far enough to meet demand. “The government is currently not delivering 300,000 homes a year,” said Seyi Obakin, head of the youth homelessness charity Centrepoint, which has a plan to create 300 new homes for young people by refurbishing existing homes and building some new ones on brownfield land. “And I don't think that the money that the Chancellor has set aside is nearly enough to get to get us over the line."

While many in housing circles acknowledge the importance of brownfield development, it is widely understood that it is not a silver bullet to the housing crisis.

“Some greenfield land would still need to come forward in many areas of the country,” Paul Miner, head of land use and planning at the CPRE, said. “But certainly, around large towns and cities, we don't need to release as much [greenfield] land as is currently coming forward, because there's still so much brownfield potential that isn't coming through the system.”

[See also: Won’t someone think of the UK’s oppressed landlords?]

The CPRE wants a "brownfield first" approach to housing policy, where priority is given to developing on brownfield land where possible.

While brownfield development may be championed by the government’s levelling up agenda, however, there is much else that needs to be done. “My feeling is that there'll be a lot of pressure for things to continue as they are, just because there are lots of people who are making quite a lot of money out of the current policies,” said Miner, alluding to big housing developers making soaring profits.

“The problems we currently have may well continue, but a lot depends on the government’s strategy with levelling up and how it gets more support for local authorities to deal with need.”

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