Fields of least resistance: The pros and cons of building on greenfield sites

25 June 2017

Considering the pros and cons of building on greenfield sites

So, I sit in my tiny garden on a sunny Sunday in a reflective mood wondering what on earth is happening to our towns and cities in the race to achieve impossible housing targets. Two cities close to my own heart, Exeter and Winchester, are suffering such that the green gaps which have given distinction to neighbourhoods for centuries are being joined up as new amorphous sprawls. This not only destroys precious habitats for our flora and fauna but causes loss of identity for humans too.

Do you remember the concept of ‘brownfield sites’, which was championed by John Prescott amongst others and was supposed to be exhausted within existing urban centres before we dug up our fields around the edge of them? The definition of a brownfield site remains one which has been previously developed, whilst a greenfield site is by definition yet undeveloped. One common misunderstanding is that Green Belt is the same as greenfield, but whilst it represents 13% of England’s land, the former is quite different, doesn’t necessarily involve virgin land, and has its own particular protected status.

Image credit: The Property Chronicle

We are told the the UK is short of ‘suitable’ housing and that approximately 3 million new homes are needed by 2030. Only recently, in January of this year, new Academy of Urbanism Chair David Rudlin responded to the Government’s housing white paper saying:

“…the first priority for new housing should be within existing towns and cities and (AoU) supports measures to bring forward brownfield development and the more intensive use of existing urban areas.”

The degree of ‘intensity’ should clearly be judged on a case-by-case basis. Simple design codes should be in place by each local authority to establish limits on density, height and overall scale – as well as ring fencing generous green spaces for individuals and for all. There is no reason why a good urbanist cannot also be a good ruralist.

The trouble is, brownfield sites are more expensive to develop. They often involve removal of previous buildings, foundations, car parks… even air strips. They can also be contaminated above or below ground through previous use, which adds huge costs for the developer. The truth is that once you get past the tricky planning hurdles, greenfield sites are simpler, cheaper, less risky, and the returns come quicker. This is why your fields are being turned to concrete (if they are not already covered in solar panels).

But fields don’t have ready infrastructure: roads, services, drainage etc so we have to put those in. This new infrastructure may be adequate for the new development, but more often than not connects to inadequate existing arrangements causing chaos and congestion.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) publishes analysis and statistics on this subject, some of which fly in the face of what we witness all around us. However, CPRE do add to the pressure on ministers in the review of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to ‘make suitable brownfield sites the first priority for any public funding, and prevent public funding for greenfield sites where these would make competing demands’. So, academicians, environmentalists and pressure groups are all having their say, but the evidence is all around us.

Then we have the debate raging in the background as to which sort of housing we should be building, and in what proportions: private; affordable; starter homes or shared ownership. The guidelines on these change like the wind and the confusion of each are for another day.

The whole saga might be more palatable if the houses that are being built on what I recently heard described by a fellow Academician as ‘fields of least resistance’ came from more imaginative minds and demonstrated greater intelligence and innovation. ‘Anywhere architecture’ with no reference to context or setting but simply churned out of a developer’s pattern book is just too lazy.

There are many strands to this theme of ‘housing crisis’ and the topic is worth returning to in a future column.

Article originally published on the Property Chronicle.

Richard is a co-founder of Design Engine and, with his fellow directors, is responsible for the design direction of the practice.