Brownfield development has featured in the Tory leadership debate, reform proposals for the English planning system, and the Scottish draft National Planning Framework. Aside from the obvious political advantage of preserving green fields, what are the benefits and disadvantages of brownfield development?


Brownfield is a technical term. A site which looks green, because there is lots of vegetation growing on it, can be brownfield for planning purposes. The definition in the draft NPF is:

"Land which has previously been developed. The term may cover vacant or derelict land, land occupied by redundant or unused buildings and developed land within the settlement boundary where further intensification of use is considered acceptable."

Brownfield sites come in all shapes, sizes and situations, so the comments which follow are broad-brush and will not necessarily apply to every brownfield site.

Advantages of using brownfield land

Mark Twain said: "Buy land, they're not making it anymore." Brownfield development reduces the need to develop on the finite supply of greenfield land. However, there are wider advantages.

The 20 minute neighbourhood concept can be easier to promote on brownfield land. Previously developed land is often situated where there are local facilities and infrastructure already in place.

The type and scale will depend on the previous use of the site and how long the site has been vacant. There will probably be existing road access to the site, but it might require significant upgrading (and it might not be possible to use existing access rights over third party land for a different use). The site might be closer to active travel networks, and existing bus and train services, than a greenfield site. There might be capacity in local schools. The distance to shops and other facilities might be less than from a greenfield site on the edge of town.

Building on brownfield land also provides an opportunity for ecology and biodiversity gain, although there can be significant amounts of flora and fauna on derelict sites.

Challenges for delivering brownfield land

It is simplistic to say that it is much harder to deliver development on brownfield land than on a greenfield site. However, there can be significant challenges to overcome.

A brownfield development opportunity might require site assembly – acquiring several sites from separate landowners, and amalgamating them. Ransom strips might be an issue – small strips of land owned by third parties which are required for access to the site.

Brownfield sites often have utility services running through them, which might require costly diversion and lengthy negotiations with utility companies.

Depending on the previous use, there may be contamination to clear up, and old foundations to remove.

There can also be difficulties with the design envelope: the design of new buildings needs to address any listed building/ conservation area issues; there may be daylighting/ privacy issues with neighbouring properties; and the character and appearance of the area might limit, eg. the height of new buildings.

Adjacent land uses can also pose problems. The agent of change principle requires compatibility with existing uses to be addressed. Although planning policy encourages re-use of vacant premises/ land, environmental health officers can often be overly cautious about potential impacts from new uses/ premises.

How can planners help to deliver brownfield development? 

Listen to the market: We all talk about how the planning system is plan-led. Limited public sector budgets mean that development is market-led. The problem is that the market is not necessarily led by the plan. If development plans do not take account of the market, there is a risk that the site allocations in the plan will lead nowhere. We've all heard the saying "Build it and they will come"; unfortunately it's not the case that "Allocate it and they will build".

Make the sale happen:
There has to be a willing landowner: if the owner does not want to relocate the factory, the site will not be available for development, no matter how ripe it is for redevelopment. Lack of affordable alternative premises can be an issue, as can unrealistic expectations of how much a developer will pay for the site.

Compulsory purchase powers can be used to acquire the site for redevelopment, but that requires the council to be willing to get involved, and is not quick.

Allow the build to happen:
There also needs to be a willing developer. That introduces the P word – profit; and the R words – risk and return. Development involves risk – whether planning permission will be granted, and whether the development will succeed. A developer expects a financial return for taking that risk – the profit. However, many of those involved in the planning system still remain suspicious of that profit motive.

Brownfield development will only happen if it is financially viable. Sites within a mile or two of each other can be subject to very different market forces – and those forces can change significantly during the development plan period (especially with the period being extended to 10 years).

Facilitate the viable options:
Bigger sites might suit mixed-use development, but that is harder for developers to deliver, because the markets for each use can be different. Funding problems can be caused by planning permission controls on phasing, tying progress on parts of the site depending on the progress on other parts – funders do not want their investment to be reliant on progress on a different part of the site which might have been sold on by the developer.

The way forward 

There needs to be openness and realism on all sides. Plan-making needs more focus on whether brownfield sites are deliverable. When deciding planning applications, if brownfield development is "good" in itself, does each site have to deliver every policy objective, or is there room for compromise to ensure delivery? How can other council services be persuaded to compromise, to avoid the frequent stalemate where the planners are unwilling to grant permission if there is an objection from another service. Standard planning permission conditions might need to be customised. There might need to be less certainty and therefore more risk – if brownfield development is "good", surely it is worth the planning authority compromising to maximise the chances of the development happening?


Neil Collar