Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Tenth Report



129. In order to encourage the use of brownfield urban sites and thereby reduce the need to build on green-field land, the Government has set a target of 60 per cent of all new homes to be built (over the next ten years) on brownfield land.[285] This target refers to the percentage of homes built on all recycled or brownfield land (not just urban) and also includes conversions. There has been some debate as to how meaningful a national brownfield target is, given that some parts of the country will have no difficulty in exceeding the target, whereas in other areas there is very little undeveloped brownfield land and the proportion achievable is likely to be well below the 60 per cent. For example, between 1991 and 1993, London achieved a figure of 87 per cent, while in the South West, it was only 37 per cent.[286] As a result of these disparities, the Government is also promoting the setting of regional targets: "we therefore will expect RPCs to draw up regional targets for incorporation in their draft RPGs".[287] The national target will be the sum of the regional targets.

130. In oral evidence, Mr Prescott agreed that the figure of 60 per cent was based on less than comprehensive information—"it is not an exact science"[288]— but that a judgement had been made based on the previous target and past trends.[289] The Minister defended the target, describing it as "very ambitious", but also "realisable".[290] He confirmed that it will be re-assessed as the findings of the Urban Task Force become available, and the indications are that a higher figure may be set.[291]

131. We took a significant amount of evidence regarding a suitable level for the brownfield target. Most witnesses were of the view that 60 per cent was not sufficiently ambitious, although the previous Government's initial target had been set at only 50 per cent. Several witnesses argued that in fact a target of 75 per cent was achievable.[292] The CPRE noted that "the 60 per cent target is a relatively modest one when compared with that urged by the Sustainable Development Round Table of 75 per cent and, in CPRE's view, should be considered as a stepping stone towards a higher figure".[293] Research undertaken by URBED shows that "it is in theory possible to accommodate 75 per cent of household growth within urban areas".[294]

132. Mr John Gummer MP also supported a higher target. He told us:

    "I think that the only way we can get the development industry to take this whole thing seriously is to push for a target which is just beyond their reach rather than a target which is well within their reach and once you get to that stage then I think you will find a significant change. That is why I would like to see us getting a bit nearer to what was called the aspirational target but it ought to be firmed up a bit more than that, in the 75 per cent area."[295]

133. In contrast, the Town and Country Planning Association was sceptical about the scope for accommodating new houses on brownfield land: "... the very maximum that might be achieved is the official DOE target of 50 per cent brownfield development; we ... are inclined to believe that in many areas the true figure will be nearer to 30-40 per cent".[296]

134. 30 per cent of all housing on previously-developed land between 1985 and 1992 was in rural areas. Accordingly, the White Paper states that the Government also expects the Regional Planning Conferences to draw up regional targets which specify the proportion of additional housing to be built on brownfield land within urban areas, through re-using both previously-developed land and buildings.[297] While the adoption of such a target was welcomed, there was concern that urban areas should be defined to cover the whole urban footprint, and that such a target should not place the whole burden of accommodating additional houses within a city as defined by a local authority boundary; the suburbs should be included within the urban areas for the purposes of the target.


135. While targets are useful in encouraging local authorities and developers to maximise the use of brownfield sites, what is achieved will be determined in part by the physical capacity of areas and by the density of development.

136. Some information is available about the amount of brownfield land. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution noted that in 1990 there was estimated to be 25,000 ha of vacant urban land which had previously been developed. It was "more than the total amount of land which it has been estimated will be transferred from rural to urban uses during the 1990s". A detailed survey by DOE in 1993 (the Derelict Land Survey) found 39,000 ha of land in England which was derelict, that was "so damaged by industrial or other development that it is incapable of beneficial use without treatment". Half this land was in urban areas. According to URBED, a survey of vacant land in urban areas in 1990 identified a figure of 60,000 hectares.[298] In 1985 DOE estimated that there were at least 10,000 ha of contaminated land in England, ie. "land which represents an actual or potential hazard to health or the environment as a result of current or previous use". While these figures indicate that there is a very large amount of brownfield land, it is unclear how much might be appropriately used for housing. Certa (UK) Ltd. told us "The biggest unknown factor is the scale of the brownfield land problem in the UK".[299]

137. There is a regional mis-match between the supply of and demand for brownfield land. It is, however, unclear whether this is a significant mismatch or whether in most regions a respectable target for brownfield housing will be achievable.

138. There was disagreement amongst witnesses about the capacity of brownfield to accommodate housing in the future. Some witnesses argued that the 'best' and 'easy' sites had already been developed. In contrast, the Civic Trust stated:

    "There are still many processes of economic and technical change at work in our urban areas which are likely to result in more redundant sites and buildings, by no means all foreseeable today. Recent studies however suggest that we are barely keeping pace with new dereliction and this in itself probably underestimates actual site vacancy".[300] In short, "... an analogy is perhaps to consider the scope for brownfield sites as a 'well' rather than a shallow 'pond'"[301]

139. Tellus 42 undertook research on behalf of Friends of the Earth into the potential for re-using urban surface car parks for new housing.[302] The report found that "the total public and private off-street car parking ... occupies some 4,600 hectares (1,970 acres)".[303] However, according to Tellus 42, almost one quarter of this space is either seldom full or seldom half full. Furthermore the land would be significantly more valuable if developed: the income accruing from these car parks "... is likely to be less than one fifth of the rent from affordable housing or small business units for the same area".[304] Various obstacles to the redevelopment of car parks were identified, including capital receipts legislation which discourages local authorities from developing Council-owned car parks. However, the benefits, it was claimed, would include: provision of housing (an estimated 250,000 households could be accommodated), environmental improvements, and a reduction in car dependency and urban traffic levels.

140. URBED was commissioned by Friends of the Earth to test whether the urban capacity existed to accommodate the UK Round Table's target of 75 per cent of new houses on brownfield land. Their study collated national data of various forms of housing capacity in order to arrive at a figure for 'unconstrained' capacity. The data sources used included the Derelict Land Survey, and estimates of: the capacity of car parks ("50,000-200,000 homes it is estimated could be accommodated by redeveloping car parks"),[305] the scope for converting empty commercial space; the potential for living over the shop; and the scope for better use of existing housing (such as subdivision and intensification). URBED found that it would be possible to accommodate 75 per cent of the housing growth on brownfield sites, but that it would "... require widespread changes to both the planning system and the housing market".[306] Three sources, it was found, are likely to offer the most significant potential. These are the redevelopment of brownfield land, living over the shop and the subdivision of under-occupied larger property. URBED also highlighted the problem of the geographical mismatch between supply of brownfield sites and demand for housing:

    "It should also be noted that this analysis does not take account of regional variations and it is likely that much of the capacity will be in areas where there is the least household growth."[307]

141. The debate about capacity is hindered by a lack of research and the absence of a commonly agreed methodology. However, the work carried out by Llewelyn-Davies on urban capacity in London and the North West has improved this situation.[308] The Government, in Planning for the Communities of the Future, has indicated its support for the approach adopted in these studies. Llewelyn-Davies presented several case studies to the Committee which demonstrated that a range of capacities could be achieved for small gap and infill sites by varying layouts and density. The consultancy told us:

    "We wanted to test the difference that different approaches to planning, design, density assumptions might make, both to the scale of site capacity and to the form and quality of development."[309]

142. The approach is based on five key principles: viewing brownfield sites as an opportunity and not a threat; relating housing potential to accessibility to public transport and local facilities; taking a long term and imaginative view; using a 'design-led' approach; and adopting a wider 'urban management' approach, for example considering the use of Neighbourhood Car Fleets.

143. The first case study was taken from a Llewelyn-Davies study in London, Sustainable Residential Quality, which looked at the potential for new housing on small sites within 800 metres of London's town centres. Using the example of a single site, we were shown that density could be increased from six houses, to 32 units,[310] by using a design-led approach, making the development car free and not adhering to standard planning standards on density. In relation to average site capacities over the whole LPAC study, Llewelyn-Davies told us:

    "Aside from quality benefits, we found that site capacities could be increased, over that permissible under UDP controls, by about 50 per cent under Option 2 (a design-led approach) and by about 100 per cent under Option 3 (design-led approach and car free)."[311]

144. We were also shown examples of sites from a Llewelyn-Davies North West study where Llewelyn-Davies was commissioned to draw up a methodology[312] to guide local authorities in undertaking capacity studies of their own areas. The Government Office for the North West told us that pilot studies using this methodology had taken place in five areas.[313] They have shown that the region has ample urban capacity and the Government Office has now urged all local authorities to undertake their own studies.

145. While there was widespread support for the more regular use of urban capacity studies, witnesses pointed out the problems associated with them. The Local Government Association was concerned about the "...enormous resources that are required to undertake these studies"[314] and highlighted the fact that few local authorities have experience of carrying out studies.[315] Guidance was required from the Government as to how to carry them out.'

285  Cm 3885, para 39. Back

286  Cm 3885, para 36. Back

287  Cm 3885, para 41. Back

288  Q1098. Back

289  QQ1096 and 1098. Back

290  Q1094. Back

291  See Q1097; see also Cm 3885, para 44. Back

292  H109. Back

293  Mins of Ev, p 150. Back

294  H187. Back

295  Q1035. Back

296  Mins of Ev, p 259.


297  Cm 3885, para 41. Back

298  H187. Back

299  H60. Back

300  Mins of Ev, p 273. Back

301  Mins of Ev, p 273. Back

302  H185. Back

303  H185. Back

304  H185. Back

305  H187. Back

306  H187. Back

307  H187. Back

308  North West Regional Association, November 1997, Urban Potential for Housing. The Manual and the Tool Kit and DETR, GOL & LPAC Sustainable Residential Quality: new approaches to urban livingBack

309  Q654. Back

310  Q654. Back

311  Mins of Ev, p 280. Back

312  North West Regional Association, November 1997, Urban Potential for Housing. The Manual and the Tool KitBack

313  Mins of Ev, p 184. Back

314  Q510. Back

315  According to Local Government Association, Q510. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1998
Prepared 30 July 1998