Housing developments on brownfield sites

Posted: 5 Nov, 2014.

The recent update from the Nationwide indicated that house price inflation had reduced to 9% in October, down from 9.4% in September. The conclusion being drawn from these statistics is that the housing market is losing momentum which is supported by the fact that mortgage approvals are at their lowest level for 14 months. Although this slight cooling of an overheated housing market seems to be broadly welcomed, it does not answer the underlying and more significant problem of a shortage of housing stock.

Among the many factors that play a part in future house building is the availability of suitable land. It is estimated that we need to build something like 250,000 homes per year and there were only 129,000 new houses completed in 2013 (source: Construction Products Association). There have been various announcements about a variety of initiatives, such as new towns and help to buy schemes but ultimately, however, if house building is to be encouraged or funded, it has to take place somewhere – but where?

Brown field or green belt?

There is often friction between those wanting to carry out new housing development and the local population. There can be a resistance to change and if people believe that their environment is going to be harmed in some way that resistance can be very determined and emotive. The preservation of the green belt surrounding urban areas is sacrosanct to many and yet houses have to be built somewhere and brownfield or “previously developed land” is increasingly being focused on as one answer.

A recent press release from the government indicates that protection of the green belt is “paramount” and that by 2020 there should be planning permissions granted for over 90% of suitable brownfield land.

What is brownfield land?

It is estimated that there are over 66,000 hectares of brownfield sites in England with around a third in highly populated areas including Greater London. There has been a focus on brownfield as the preferred location for housing development for some time and it is estimated that 60% of new houses are being built on brownfield sites. Of course “brownfield” does not necessarily mean contaminated industrial land, merely that it was previously developed, however it is typically former industrial land.

The difficulty when it comes to building on this type of land is what was left behind by the previous occupant. Treating or remediating a brownfield site calls for specialist skills, as the security of the environment and human health is of paramount importance. The costs of remediation obviously have to be factored in when considering this land for building and sometimes the cost is so large it is not economically viable.

The good news is that remediation techniques are evolving and previously contaminated and unusable land can be brought back into use. Biomediation, for example, uses natural resources like bacteria and microorganisms to neutralise contaminants, or injecting oxidants into the soil can destroy hazardous chemicals. In some cases, the unwanted residue left behind by industry can be effectively harvested by using plants (phytoremediation) to absorb the residue which can then be removed or possibly reused.

Is brownfield the answer?

When viewed both as part of an overall house building strategy and improving the environment, the use of brownfield sites can only be a good thing. As the managing director of a door company supplying to builders and home owners, these initiatives are a positive impetus to the housing market. The question to be answered with all the different announcements and good intentions is, “will the housing shortfall ever be remedied?”

By James Cadman

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