Green belt vs Brownfield

In this Opinion piece for unLTD magazine, Wayne talks about the green belt vs brownfield debate.

I have been in many a discussion surrounding the topic of green belt versus brownfield, which one should we build on and why. The opposite corners of the debate are usually occupied by those with strong views, and both sides have a valid argument. I have always been in the ‘exhaust the brownfield option first’ seat. Naturally, working as a consultant in the construction industry, that opinion is not always shared by those around me.

One of the more contentious issues is with new housing developments. We have a housing problem in the UK. It is a complex subject with many variables and not one that I am going to delve too deeply into today; however, it is generally accepted that we have a shortage of housing, and we need to do something about it. But not only do we have a shortage of housing, but importantly, we have a shortage of ‘affordable’ housing in areas where people want to live.

Should we be releasing green belt land for housing developments? In my opinion, we should be focusing our efforts towards looking at more ways to redevelop brownfield sites first. Our countryside is an important part of our way of life, and it must be protected; once it has gone it will not return.

The fundamental aim of the green belt is to prevent urban sprawl and thereby protect greenfield, previously undeveloped land, and encourage the development and reuse of existing brownfield areas. Not only does this protect countryside and wildlife habitats, which is essential, but it helps to reduce wasted and abandoned or derelict areas of the city.

Rather than take what is often the easiest route and build on green belt land, we should support and promote the development of larger mixed-use schemes with their own infrastructure, shops, schools and communities to ensure we don’t just ‘bolt on’ to existing areas which simply puts added strain on school catchment areas, medical centres and other community amenities that are already at capacity.

Unfortunately, there are often several prohibitive costs when developing on brownfield sites and if we are going to achieve the goal of providing affordable housing then the development costs need to be realistic. Developing a site which is contaminated or requires extensive ground works for example would not be feasible unless costs can be recouped in the sale of the properties, which defeats the object of providing ‘affordable housing’. Unless, of course, these costs can be offset by public money or other incentives to make the project viable. Either way, someone needs to pay for it.

Another limiting factor of using brownfield sites is their location. Many of them are in industrial areas, and these areas don’t always lend themselves to housing developments unless they are of a certain size.

Certainly, around the Sheffield city region, as a city with a strong history of industry, there are many sites that have previously been occupied by steelworks and factories that are no longer required for the purpose they were originally built for; however, the sites are often unsuitable for residential developments.

Perhaps reintroducing pedestrianised areas and green spaces to city centres will encourage housing and communities to start to encroach on the city centre once again which should make some of these brownfield sites more attractive. Time will tell.

Most people understand and respect the importance of protecting our flora and fauna. Now more than ever, helped by the Covid pandemic, people are realising just how important and how positive these spaces are for our wellbeing and mental health.

The green belt was introduced for a reason – to prevent urban sprawl – and it remains an important tool to ensure greenfield spaces and wildlife habitats are protected.

Although I am an advocate for promoting developments on brownfield sites over the encroachment onto green belt land, we must acknowledge that certain areas of the green belt do include previously developed sites, so it isn’t always as clean-cut as it appears. A topic for another day, perhaps…

Should we be building on green belt land? In some instances, maybe. However, we must be cautious to ensure we retain the integrity of the green belt ethos and remember why it was introduced in the first place.

Most importantly, we must focus our efforts on making the reuse of brownfield sites into more cost-effective, feasible, attractive propositions for developers and investors.

I stand by my original quote: ‘exhaust the brownfield option first’.