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A Brown and Pleasant Land?

18th June 2014

“CHANCELLOR George Osborne last night revealed “radical” new rules on housing that he said would push local authorities to let developers build on almost all brownfield land – or central government might bypass council controls altogether.

The chancellor said that he expected 90 per cent of appropriate brownfield land to be covered by pre-approved planning permission in six years, freeing up as many as 200,000 new homes across the country.”

[City A.M., 13th June 2014 – www.cityam.com – covering Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Mansion House speech]


The Chancellor’s recently announced drive to solve the “housing crisis” by compelling local authorities to short-circuit normal planning procedures so as to bring forward brownfield land for building “up to 200,000 new homes” raises many complex issues, so first thoughts areprobably dangerous – but I’m going to have a go anyway. Here are the first five that have come to mind, in response to the words Mr. Osborne actually spoke at Mansion House.


1.    “We need to see a lot more homes being built in Britain. The growing demand for housing has to be met by growing supply.”

Can’t argue with that one. We all know that, but finding agreement about what’s hindering the supply side and how best to boost it is a bit more challenging. But, of course, that’s why the Chancellor was all dressed up and ready to illuminate everyone…


2. “We’ve already taken big steps to deliver those new homes. We’ve reformed our antiquated planning system.”

Some interesting use of language.

“Big” steps? Perhaps, but the steps taken in the 1950s and 1960s were definitely bigger (incentivised massively by the need to stride ahead after a devastating war, of course). The building peak was reached as long ago as 1968. Home-building rates plummeted pretty dramatically after that and have really remained comparatively unimpressive ever since. What made the difference? Direct public investment in housing provision. The BIG lesson so far seems to be that, whatever we do, the private sector alone simply can’t build all the houses we need fast enough. Politically and economically tricky but, nevertheless, that seems to be what the statistics show. So giving advance planning permission for housing on lots of brownfield sites might be part of a good idea, but its not a panacea by any means.

The other interesting phrase is “our antiquated planning system” As systems go, this one actually seems to have been in a state of constant reform – a sort of perpetual revolution – for a long time now. “Confused”, “confusing”, “contradictory”, “contorted”, “challenging”, yes, I can see varying degrees of justification for each of those adjectives; but “antiquated”? That suggests a degree of stability and constancy that we really have not experienced – and probably rightly so, in many ways. Planning is all about managing change, so change is really the only constant in planning!


3. “If we want to limit development on important green spaces, we have to remove all the obstacles that remain to development on brown field sites.”

The operative word here is “important”. If we have important green spaces we, presumably, also have less important – even unimportant – green spaces too. To quote economist Dr. Kristian Niemietz, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs:  “an ex-industrial site that is used as a car park is not really “derelict”, and greenbelt land that is used for high-intensity agriculture is hardly pristine countryside. We should judge land by its actual environmental and amenity value, not by a box-ticking template from the 1940s”

The challenge for planners, politicians, communities and developers is to work together in differentiating between important and less important green spaces, as well as in identifying suitable brownfield sites, and to plan and deliver the development that is really needed in the most beneficial, least damaging ways. Applying a simplistic “green field bad – brown field good” approach when deciding where to build isn’t really likely to lead to the best outcomes (as we’ve seen before). I’m sure that’s not what Mr. Osborne was saying: it’s just that that’s how it sounds. The challenge for government is to prioritise investment and to avoid getting distracted by blame-game solutions.


4. “Councils will be required to put local development orders on over 90% of brownfield sites that are suitable for housing.”

Another important word that might get lost if we’re not careful – the qualification “suitable”. So, we’re not talking about 90% of all brownfield sites, but 90% of whatever proportion of those sites may be considered suitable to have homes built on them.

That’s fine, but differentiating will involve consideration of a number of quite complex factors, including, for example:

–  location  – is this a good place for people to live?

–  infrastructure – is this place already well-connected and well served? If not can it be, and what are the costs involved?

–  viability – how much will it costs to make this a fit and healthy place for people to live? Will it be possible to meet the costs of restoration and cleaning, build affordable homes and still make an acceptable profit?


This will not be a simple task – which is why trying to get the right answers has tended to take time. Shifting the onus away from developers having to carry out the investigations to support planning applications to local authority planners having to do the same work to inform Local Development Orders might not be such an easy answer. It certainly doesn’t go very far towards answering the question “what if the largest concentrations of suitable brownfield land happen to be in the places where demand for housing is low?” NLP’s recent analysis suggests strongly that this is a very real problem.


5. “This urban planning revolution will mean that in effect development on these sites will be pre-approved – local authorities will be able to specify the type of housing, not whether there is housing.”

 More interesting use of language. I’ve already suggested that the “revolution” is continual. Mr. Osborne might wish to be cast in the dashing role of revolutionary student leader, Marius, in the Mansion House production of Les Miserables, but to play that one out he has to “hear the people sing” and that’s where there seems to be a bit of a problem with all this. The Chancellor says that “local authorities will be able to specify the type of housing, not whether there is housing”.  Really? Won’t it be the local authorities who make that in-principle decision when formulating the LDOs? If not them, who? Who will be deciding whether each brownfield site is “suitable”? Who will be considering the wider implications of building homes on that site? Who will be working out demand and viability issues – looking at whether people will actually come if you build it? Who will be consulting the local people and hearing them sing? Is it really being suggested that central government will have the knowledge and understanding of each place and each community to take those decisions itself?

I really do hope I’ve misunderstood this one!


There are big steps to be taken between putting a Local Development Order in place for developing a brownfield site and putting houses (or anything else) on a brownfield site to develop a place. Generally, planners do not seem to have been notably averse to the principle of redeveloping these sites – or of prioritising their redevelopment – but the remediation processes often involved can be very costly and making such developments commercially viable (without public financial intervention) has not proved an easy task for developers. Ways of overcoming that deterrent to development need very careful consideration. Just simplifying the procedure for  obtaining planning permission is unlikely to be the answer to the housing crisis, but it might well take us all a further step away from the careful planning of development  and change that is necessary to produce the well-designed and well-integrated places that we need for a healthy future.