UK must put Brownfield First for sustainable development

Reusing brownfield land must be an essential part of the delivery of new developments across the UK, according to a new report from the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC).

The report, Brownfield First: making better use of our landdraws on long-term expertise to identify ways in which development on brownfield land can be sustainably increased benefitting the environment and the economy. EIC says that the UK’s rich industrial heritage, rising population and constrained space makes the reuse of previously developed or brownfield land a key part of delivering new projects and developments in the UK.

While currently only 10-20% of development in the UK takes place on sites classified as brownfield, the latest statistics from the Homes and Communities Agency indicates that there is approximately 61,920 ha of brownfield land in England, with 54% considered derelict or vacant while the remainder is in some form of use with potential for redevelopment. DCLG figures (2010) suggests approximately 35,000 ha of this brownfield land is suitable for housing development, further establishing the potential of brownfield in creating sustainable communities combining housing, retail, as well as commercial or industrial development.

Brownfield First: making better use of our land is the latest is a series of EIC work on sustainable development, and contaminated land. Peter Atchison, chairman of EIC's contaminated land working group, said: “Brownfield first offers the practical solution to two issues facing the UK - the need for more sustainable development and use of previously developed sites.”

Recent reports have suggested that brownfield land has the capacity to support over 1.8 million new homes yet despite this, recent government figures show a decline in the proportion of homes being built on such land. The EIC report recommends action for ‘Reforming Land Remediation Relief’ in order to overcome financial challenges to those implementing forms of land remediation. The recommendation also includes the details of an expertly guided, feasible pre-tax credit protocol, as well as various forms of tax relief.

“The government’s plans to develop a brownfield register under the Housing and Planning Act is welcomed, but many questions still need to be answered with regard to the details of the register and the implementation and delivery of brownfield sites for housing," said Michael Lunn, public affairs director at EIC. "Although it's right to focus on housebuilding on brownfield, we must not forget the opportunities for commercial development as well as the delivery of infrastructure on brownfield sites," said Lunn. "Indeed EIC members feel strongly that all brownfield sites should be considered, not just those allocated for approved housing schemes by 2020. Furthermore, to enable sites to be brought forward we need the Treasury to review and challenge the financial model to which brownfield sites are delivered," Lunn said.

The EIC report also makes governmental objectives practical through refinements to foster the development of not just housing within the UK but also the supporting infrastructure for sustainable communities. The report highlights the many benefits and well-established nature of brownfield policy, as well as providing expertly guided refinements to the government’s current efforts to boost brownfield use with a plan of action to ensure safe, sustainable and economic developments throughout the UK.

EIC is keen to focus on addressing the economic challenges of utilising brownfield sites that are not adequately addressed in current government initiatives and the report allows all levels of government and industry leaders to access cumulative advice from historically successful experts dealing with the complexities of brownfield on a daily basis.  

While the Housing and Planning Act has sought to prioritise brownfield land development, not all the challenges are fully addressed. EIC says that engagement with the industry is essential to make real progress in this area. They see their report as playing a key role in helping the government to achieve its ambitious target of achieving planning consent on 90% of sites recorded on the new Brownfield Registers by 2020, but also that this will be done in a sustainable, fair and incentivised way. 

Click here to download the EIC report, Brownfield First: making better use of our land.


There are a few issues that the report doesn't fully tackle to using brownfield sites: Sites are often within existing developed areas, services and infrastructure are already strained, so adding 200 homes to an existing community adds strain to facilities, as well as resistance from the locals. Why do all brownfield sites have to become housing? If we are trying to move back to a manufacturing economy then perhaps some of these sites should remain as industrial usage. I agree that Brownfield site are often contaminated with unknown contaminants and this is the risk that put developers off the most, not only that I've seen developments get out of their affordable housing responsibility due to the "undue" burden of unexpected contamination. The land needs to be sold with suitable ground investigation, and similar to an asbestos register for a building, a ground contamination register should exist for an industrial site, this would drop the land value and make the development more financially viable, which in turn would mean more money to spend on better houses and less local opposition.