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Dirty data threatens to inhibit growth of brownfield housebuilding

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The brownfield register offers great potential for identifying viable sites to build homes, but its implementation has been patchy

There is enough capacity to build more than a million homes, in a total area a similar size to Birmingham, on brownfield land.

While that may sound a lot, this number would deliver just over three years’ worth of the housing the government aims to build out at a rate of 300,000 new homes a year by the middle of the next decade.

However, the brownfield registers councils were required to produce late last year reveal a total of 1,056,555 homes are planned to be built on 27,417 hectares of land by councils in England. A proportion of them can be delivered within five years, offering opportunities for the housing market in a number of areas, especially on smaller sites.

Exclusive LGC research of the data in all publicly available brownfield registers showed that 30 councils, mostly in urban areas, make up almost half the number of homes planned – almost 459,000, and about two-thirds (65%) are deemed to be deliverable within the next five years. 

Of the top 30 council areas, 51% of the homes intended for brownfield land are on sites delivering between 10 and 199 homes, while 40% of the developments are on sites for fewer than nine homes. Sites of 200 homes or more made up the remaining 9%.

One in 10 sites in the top 30 is publicly owned. 

Hart DC joint chief executive Daryl Phillips, the District Councils’ Network lead spokesman for planning, told LGC the smaller sites contained the biggest potential but warned that councils need to do more to make sure small and medium-sized builders know those sites exist.

He said: “Why would an SME builder know about the brownfield land register? You have to do something with it and advertise it – we want this land to be developed in the right way.”

A government impact assessment from 2015 found that data on brownfield land would “be likely to improve information available to developers and improve their business decisions”. The assessment found the most recent data, dating from the 2010 national land use database, was “out of date and of poor quality”.

Areas planning to build the most homes on brownfield land 




However, LGC understands some councils only reported the true figures for the bigger sites in their brownfield land registers, so either left out many smaller sites or estimated the number of homes they could potentially hold.

Mr Phillips said: “The bigger stuff isn’t so critical. You can bet your bottom dollar those sites will be marketed properly by the land-owners, so [those] being on a register doesn’t matter.”

Manjeet Gill, housing spokesman for the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, agreed. While she noted a focus on larger sites through strategic planning can help secure infrastructure needed to support numerous developments, the interim chief executive of Wokingham BC added: “However, build-out in terms of housing numbers takes longer and therefore our planning processes at Wokingham also look at a mix of smaller and brownfield land sites to enable a diverse pipeline.”

Ms Gill called on the government to introduce “fiscal incentives by way of further VAT and tax incentives” as a way of helping to “stimulate new start-ups as well as growth of SME sector”.

Some of the principle barriers to developers accessing brownfield land are identified in part one of the register. However, most of the barriers are only identified in part two, which councils are not legally required to complete.

In part one, councils are asked to report the details of each site, including the size, number of homes it can provide, and the ownership of the land. Other details include locations, planning permission status and whether it is deemed ‘deliverable’ - whether homes can be built within five years.

Councils were required by law to publish that part by 31 December, but LGC found that 14 councils had not published a report publicly by the middle of February.

One of those was Epping Forest DC which cited an “unfortunate delay” to the publication of its brownfield land register. A spokesperson for the council told LGC this was “due to the council concentrating its resources on compiling and publishing a local plan ready for -submission by the end of March 2018”.

In November, the then Department for Communities & Local Government warned it would consider sanctions against councils that did not publish registers. 

Part two of the brownfield register should comprise a list of the sites contained in part one that the council has decided would be suitable for granting permission in principle for housing. Without this clearly marked, some developers could be put off.

But from June this year an amendment to the Town & Country Planning Act 1990 will come into force which will allow applicants to apply for permission in principle on the sites identified in brownfield land registers from the council.

Mike Kiely, chair of the Planning Officers Society, said permission in principle had come about because SME housebuilders had complained that planning permission was “too complicated and expensive”.

“There’s a perception among smaller builders that they’ve been pushed out of the market because the big developers dominate the building sites. It’s difficult for them to get planning permission because of the cost,” Mr Kiely said. “What these small housebuilders are saying is an outline planning permission is too expensive and complicated a process before building works can go ahead for a small site.”

Professor Mohammed Arif, who is head of architecture and built environment and professor of sustainability and construction futures at the University of Wolverhampton, told LGC councils should see their brownfield registers as an “opportunity, not a liability”.

“[The register] can significantly stir up economic activity by increasing building opportunities for SMEs. This will stimulate your environmental consultancy, planning and remediation businesses locally and everything grows from there.”

Perhaps it is not surprising that overall London reported the largest number of total new homes planned as a region – its boroughs’ brownfield registers make up 29% of the total of homes planned across the country – while the data shows it is also the most dense region for new housing.

The East of England has the most brownfield land to build on, but the data in the registers of the region’s councils made it the second least dense after the north-east.

Areas planning to build the most homes on brownfield land

Manchester City Council


Barnet LBC


Leeds City Council


Wandsworth LBC


Barking & Dagenham LBC


Birmingham City Council


Greenwich RBC


Old Oak Development Corporation


Sheffield City Council


Brent LBC





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