Home Leisure & Lifestyle Balancing Housing Needs and Environmental Concerns: The Case for Repurposing Brownfield Sites

Balancing Housing Needs and Environmental Concerns: The Case for Repurposing Brownfield Sites

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Picking a side seems to be being foisted on us more and more these days. But building new homes and looking after the environment need not be one or the other situation. However, that is how things were framed recently when the government attempted to pass fresh legislation regarding excess nutrient laws.

Our waterways need to be protected from excess nutrient levels because it causes algae to bloom, suffocating other pondlife and disturbing the natural balance of water-based things. With the aim of ensuring new housing schemes did not add to the nutrient problem, Natural England identified 74 local authorities who had vulnerable land, environmentally speaking, and required that any new development not add to the nutrient problem. 

Developers had difficulties proving that their new homes weren’t adding to the nutrient problem locally. Local authorities found themselves in a position where they couldn’t grant any planning permission for new homes without being legally exposed. So, they refused to grant permission for any new homes, and the residential property development industry in 74 council areas up and down the country went into stasis.

The main challenge is that we have a national housing crisis. Too few new homes are being built every year, and the issue is worsening. The government reckons we need to build around 300,000 new homes annually, which, to put it into context, is just over the number of homes already in Oxfordshire. We’re now at a point where around 100,000 new homes are stuck in the planning system due to this nutrient neutrality deadlock.

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove planned to tackle the nutrient issue head-on by relaxing the development constraints and offsetting the impact through direct investment in improving water treatment in affected areas. In addition, new homes in those areas would be subject to a levy that would be put towards the cost of having the water companies place much-needed investment into their treatment infrastructure and processes to clean up their act. This prompted a backlash from environmental groups, who saw it as a capitulation. We should have clean waterways, but we do need new homes. 

In the end, the government’s attempt to amend the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill was voted down in the House of Lords; the vote was 203 peers against the amendment and 156 for. This is disappointing news for those in favour of Gove’s plan.

A less well-reported development has seen the government take further action, which should be very welcome in greener quarters. According to the countryside charity CPRE, there are currently 1.2 million new homes that could be built on unwanted brownfield sites. These sites are redundant commercial, light industrial, and retail premises that are no longer needed. No matter where you live in the country, you will doubtless be aware of dozens of these buildings yourself. Whether it’s disused factories or empty shops on the high street, there are hundreds of thousands of these buildings up and down the country. And the government is all too aware of it. 

In 2020, they radically overhauled the permitted development rights (PDRs) that apply to commercial buildings, and today, a huge number of these sites can be converted into residential use without the need for full planning permission. And they have recently done so again, further extending the scope and removing some of the constraints so that it’s easier than ever before to convert these buildings. For obvious reasons, this is excellent news for people looking to try their hand at property development: changing an existing building without the need for planning permission is relatively low-risk in development terms, and with so many buildings to aim at, there’s now a considerable number of people looking to develop their first project in their spare time.

So, small-scale property developers are justifiably made up, and it is good news for all with concerns about the environment.

Conversion of commercial buildings means we are effectively recycling property. After all, why do we need to build on our precious greenbelt when we can build 1.2 million new homes using buildings we already have? They already exist, are in the right place, and are connected to our utility infrastructure, such as water, waste, and power. They don’t require new roads to be built, and no one needs to dig holes in the ground. And because these buildings had previous inhabitants, the net impact from a nutrient perspective is negligible. Better still, from a government perspective, no one usually objects. From a political perspective, converting existing buildings is a housebuilding strategy that will upset the fewest people.

Ritchie Clapson CEng is an established developer, author, industry commentator, and co-founder of the leading property development training company propertyCEO.

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