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Register of interest – the future of brownfield sites

We know that there is a lot of brownfield land in the UK due to our industrial heritage. Recent statistics from the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) suggest that there are some 62,000ha of brownfield land in England alone. Of this, over 50% is derelict or vacant, whilst the remainder is in use but has development potential. DCLG figures suggest that approximately 35,000ha of that land is suitable for housing.


However, we also know that not all brownfield land is viable for development. A core principle of the National Planning Policy Framework (the NPPF) is to “encourage the effective use of land by reusing land that has been previously developed”. 

Recently there have been a number of government initiatives to make it easier to redevelop complex brownfield sites. One of the key areas addressed included changes to planning policy to promote brownfield reuse as a priority over greenfield development. One of the main government initiatives to achieve this aim is the introduction of the Brownfield Register.

The Brownfield Register

The Housing and Planning Act places a responsibility on local authorities to identify brownfield sites through the use of the Brownfield Register. Once identified, the local authority will be responsible for securing planning consent on 90% of suitable brownfield land by 2020.

Those sites that meet the assessment criteria will be entered onto the Brownfield Register as ‘suitable for housing’. Importantly, the legislation provides ‘permission in principle’ status for such development, thereby streamlining the planning process on these complex sites. There are a number of criteria that must be satisfied before land can be included in the Brownfield Register, most importantly, it must be capable of development and be free from constraints that cannot be mitigated, which needs to be supported by strong evidence.

Pilot studies have been completed in 73 local authorities and many have already published their Brownfield Register entries online. 53 of these local authorities have identified ‘suitable sites’ that could provide 273,000 homes. If you scale this up to a national level, then suitable sites could provide some 1.1 million homes!

At WSP, we have scratched the surface of the existing Brownfield Registers and it paints a somewhat less promising situation. We have looked more closely at 17 located in the South East with a focus on 12 of them.

  • There are 773 sites registered;
  • This represents a potential 44,474 units; and
  • 37% do not have planning permission in place i.e. majority already identified and with planning approval.

More specifically, referring to one particular Register, it has a respectable 45 sites with 1,325 units. However:

  • 35 are less than 1 Ha;
  • 25 are less than the register lower level of 0.25 Ha; and
  • most importantly 35 are already permitted.

So this raises some important questions – how much new land has actually come out of this process so far?  And, are sites <1Ha large enough to be of interest to developers?  There has been a good start but much more needs to be done to give local authorities and developers the tools to reuse brownfield land to build more homes.

Andy O’Dea is WSP environmental technical director, based in London