How to tackle the housing crisis – greenfield vs brownfield development

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

The UK is currently in the midst of a housing crisis, the economy still recovering from the worst recession since for 100 years. Despite this, house building is at its lowest since the 1920’s. All sides to the debate generally agree that development is required however the question remains over where the new homes should be built. The debate appears to focus on whether new houses should be built on brownfield sites or whether expansion is required into the countryside.

The government in its attempt to tackle the problem introduced the National Planning Policy Framework two years ago to encourage development by cutting down on red tape. According to the guidelines local councils which have not identified suitable land to tackle the housing demand for the upcoming five years have to adopt a presumption in favour of granting planning permission. Local authorities therefore hold the decision of whether to grant planning permission however this decision can be overridden by a planning inspector at a later stage. Developers are therefore applying to the Planning Inspectorate if refused by the local authority. According to figures one in six appeals are being approved. This has faced criticism because the planning inspectors are unelected.

There are growing concerns the above changes to planning policy has opened the doors to increased planning in the countryside over brownfield development as building on brownfield land is very expensive. Simon Jenkins stepped down as chairperson of the conservation charity, the National Trust, earlier this month. He has raised concerns that the Government has broken its promise to protect the countryside. The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), a pressure group that campaigns against development in the English countryside, has raised concerns that planning permission has been given for 27,000 houses to be built on greenfield sites in the last two years. According to the CPRE developers are focusing on villages around national parks and areas of natural beauty. Unlike national parks and areas of natural beauty these areas are not protected land. It has been argued that there are enough brownfield sites in London for half a million homes to be built and nationwide for 1.5 million homes to be built. There is therefore arguably no need to intrude on greenfield land.

The planning minister, Brandon Lewis, has countered that the government has kept countryside protection at the forefront of planning reforms. Local plans allow for local communities to decide where developments should go. The government is aware of the need to provide housing to assist first time buyers however the government state that they are favouring brownfield sites to ensure that the countryside and environment remain protected. The Government has said that the aim is for more than 90% of brownfield land to have planning permission for new homes by 2020.

It is argued that the above is scaremongering as 90% of England is not built on. Furthermore greenbelt land actually only accounts for 13% of this undeveloped total. Protections remain in place for greenbelt land which has resulted in the lowest rate of greenbelt development since 1989. On the contrary it is argued that greenbelt is not necessarily the most beautiful countryside and by keeping it protected it is forcing housing in areas outside the greenbelt which at times may be more beautiful countryside. The Countryside Alliance has accepted that there is a need to build homes in the countryside however this needs to be done thoughtfully. There is a need for organic growth to ensure that the communities are not overwhelmed. Roger Harding, Head of Policy at Shelter, supports the building of more garden cities such as Milton Keynes and Hemel Hempstead.

In the summer the International Monetary Fund (IMF) called for Ministers to make it easier to build in the countryside. Demand currently exceeds supply and resulting rising house prices is a risk to the UK’s financial stability. Christine Lagarde, IMF’s managing director, has said UK needs to build more houses if economic recovery is to be secured. According to the IMF, by keeping interest rates low and applying schemes such as Help to Buy the UK runs the risk of fuelling the increase in house prices which could lead to further financial instability. The IMF has criticised constraints on both brownfield and greenfield developments.

There is clearly no miracle cure to the housing crisis, however decisions need to be made and property development appears to be inevitable to support economic recovery. The social and economic impacts of decisions made however will remain to be assessed.