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The importance of brownfield land in UK property development: a comprehensive guide

16/05/2024

As the UK faces an ongoing housing shortage and increasing pressure to develop land sustainably, the concept of brownfield land has gained significant attention among property developers, planners, and policymakers. Brownfield sites offer a unique opportunity to create new homes, commercial spaces, and community amenities while minimising the impact on undeveloped green spaces. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the definition of brownfield land, its role in the planning process, and how Nimbus, a cutting-edge land sourcing platform, can help developers identify and capitalise on brownfield development opportunities.

Understanding brownfield land

Brownfield land, as defined by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), refers to "previously developed land" or "land which is, or was, occupied by a permanent structure." In essence, it encompasses any land that has been built on in the past, but is no longer in use. This can include:

  • abandoned or underutilised industrial sites;
  • vacant commercial buildings or offices;
  • derelict or contaminated land;
  • former mines, landfills, or quarries.

It is important to note that not all previously developed land automatically qualifies as brownfield. The NPPF outlines several exceptions, such as agricultural buildings, mineral extraction sites, residential gardens, and parks or recreational areas. Additionally, if a site has been vacant for an extended period and has blended back into the natural landscape, it may no longer be considered brownfield.

The potential of brownfield sites

While brownfield sites are often associated with urban areas, they can also be found in rural settings, including within the green belt. These sites present unique opportunities for redevelopment and regeneration, offering the potential to create new homes, businesses, and community spaces without encroaching on undeveloped land.

One notable example of successful brownfield redevelopment is the transformation of the Kings Cross area in central London. Once an industrial wasteland, the 67-acre site now boasts a vibrant mix of residential, commercial, and public spaces, showcasing the potential of large-scale brownfield regeneration projects.

old gritty abandoned factory interior

Brownfield land and the planning process

The UK government has placed a strong emphasis on prioritising brownfield development as part of its strategy to address the housing shortage and promote sustainable land use. The NPPF provides clear guidance for local planning authorities (LPAs) on how to approach brownfield sites in their decision-making process.

Chapter 11 of the NPPF states that LPAs should set out a clear strategy for accommodating assessed housing needs, making the most effective use of previously developed or brownfield land. This means that planning decisions should give "substantial weight" to the value of using brownfield land for development, particularly for housing.

Moreover, LPAs are required to take a proactive approach in identifying and helping to bring forward suitable brownfield sites for development. This is where the Brownfield Land Register comes into play.

The Brownfield Land Register: A key tool for developers

Introduced in 2017, the Brownfield Land Register is a public record maintained by LPAs in England, listing brownfield sites that are suitable for housing development. To be included in the register, a site must meet the following criteria:

  1. A minimum area of 0.25 hectares or the capacity to support at least five dwellings.
  2. Suitable for residential development.
  3. Available for development (i.e., no legal or ownership constraints).
  4. Achievable within 15 years.

The register provides valuable information for developers, including site location, size, ownership details, planning status, and the estimated number of dwellings that could be accommodated. By consulting the Brownfield Land Register, developers can more easily identify suitable sites and assess their development potential.

Permission in principle and the Brownfield Land Register

The Brownfield Land Register is divided into two parts. Part 1 lists all brownfield sites that meet the eligibility criteria, regardless of their planning status. Part 2, however, is where things get particularly interesting for developers.

Sites listed in Part 2 of the register have been granted "permission in principle" (PiP) for residential development. PiP is a relatively new tool introduced to streamline the planning process for housing-led developments on brownfield land. It establishes the fundamental suitability of a site for residential use, considering factors such as land use, location, and the scale of development proposed.

While developers will still need to obtain technical details consent before proceeding with development on a site with PiP, the process is significantly simplified and expedited compared to a full planning application. The inclusion of a site in Part 2 of the Brownfield Land Register provides greater certainty for developers and can help accelerate the delivery of new homes on brownfield land.

Recent policy developments: brownfield first

In February 2024, the UK government announced new measures to further prioritise brownfield development and streamline the planning process for such sites. Under these proposals, every council in England will be required to adopt a "brownfield first" approach, being more flexible and less bureaucratic in their policies relating to brownfield development.

Moreover, the government has raised the bar for refusing brownfield planning applications, particularly for councils in the 20 largest cities and towns that are falling short of their agreed housing targets. These authorities will be subject to a "brownfield presumption," meaning that brownfield sites will be presumed suitable for development unless there are compelling reasons to refuse permission.

These policy changes underscore the government's commitment to unlocking the potential of brownfield land and removing barriers to its development. For property developers, this presents a significant opportunity to focus on brownfield sites as a key component of their development strategies.

Beyond housing: other uses for brownfield land

While the conversation around brownfield land often centres on its potential for addressing the housing shortage, these sites offer opportunities for a wider range of development types. Brownfield land can be suitable for commercial projects, such as office spaces, retail outlets, or industrial units, contributing to economic growth and job creation.

In recent years, there has also been a growing interest in using brownfield sites for renewable energy projects, particularly solar farms. The National Policy Statement EN-3, updated in January 2024, clarifies that solar farms are best situated on previously developed brownfield land. This policy shift opens up new possibilities for developers looking to combine brownfield regeneration with the transition to clean energy.

Challenges and considerations in brownfield development

Despite the many advantages of developing brownfield land, there are several challenges and considerations that developers must be aware of:

  • Contamination: Brownfield sites, especially those with a history of industrial use, may be contaminated with hazardous substances such as asbestos, lead, or chemicals. Remediation and clean-up costs can be significant and must be factored into the development budget.
  • Infrastructure and access: Some brownfield sites may have limited road access or inadequate infrastructure to support the proposed development. Upgrading utilities, roads, and services can add complexity and cost to the project.
  • Ecological considerations: Land that has been left unused for an extended period may have become a habitat for protected species or developed unique ecological features. Developers must ensure that their plans do not adversely impact the site's biodiversity or disturb sensitive habitats.
  • Heritage and local context: Brownfield sites may have historical or cultural significance, or be located in areas with a strong local identity. Developers should engage with the community and consider how their proposals can integrate with and enhance the existing built environment.
  • Air quality and public health: For sites with a history of industrial activity, air quality and potential health impacts on future occupants must be carefully assessed and addressed through appropriate design and mitigation measures.

While these challenges can be significant, they are not insurmountable. With careful planning, due diligence, and a commitment to sustainable development practices, brownfield sites can be successfully transformed into thriving, liveable spaces.

Unlocking brownfield potential with Nimbus

Identifying and assessing the viability of brownfield sites can be a time-consuming and resource-intensive process for developers. This is where our platform comes in.

Nimbus, the UK's leading land sourcing platform, offers a dedicated mapping layer for brownfield land, which collates and standardises data from brownfield registers across the country. Through its user-friendly interface, developers can quickly filter sites by size, location, ownership, and planning status, accessing detailed information on each site's potential.

One of the key advantages of Nimbus is its ability to provide comprehensive, up-to-date data on brownfield sites. By integrating information from multiple sources, including land ownership records, planning applications, and site constraints, Nimbus empowers developers to make informed decisions and prioritise the most promising opportunities.

Moreover, Nimbus's strategic mapping system allows users to overlay additional layers of information, such as planning constraints, land ownership boundaries, and infrastructure networks. This holistic view of a site's context can help developers identify potential challenges and opportunities early in the process, saving valuable time and resources.

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Battersea Power Station: a successful brownfield regeneration

To illustrate the transformative potential of brownfield development, let's consider the ongoing regeneration of the Battersea Power Station site in London.

Once a decommissioned coal-fired power plant, this iconic 42-acre brownfield site is being transformed into a vibrant mixed-use neighbourhood. The £9 billion redevelopment project will deliver over 4,000 new homes, as well as office spaces, shops, restaurants, and public amenities, including a new London Underground station and a six-acre public park.

The Battersea Power Station project demonstrates how even the most complex and challenging brownfield sites can be successfully repurposed to create thriving, sustainable communities. By combining residential, commercial, and public spaces, the development will contribute to London's housing supply while also generating economic activity and enhancing the local area's vitality.

This example highlights the importance of vision, collaboration, and a commitment to placemaking in unlocking the potential of brownfield land. By engaging with local stakeholders, respecting the site's heritage, and delivering a mix of uses that respond to community needs, developers can create truly transformative projects on brownfield sites.

The brownfield opportunity

As the UK continues to grapple with the dual challenges of housing shortages and sustainable land use, brownfield sites represent a significant opportunity for property developers. By prioritising the redevelopment of previously developed land, we can deliver much-needed homes, businesses, and community spaces while protecting our precious green spaces.

The government's renewed focus on brownfield development, as evidenced by recent policy changes and the Brownfield Land Register, underscores the importance of these sites in meeting our housing and sustainability goals. For developers, this presents a clear call to action to embrace the potential of brownfield land and innovate in their approach to regeneration projects.

However, navigating the complexities of brownfield development requires access to reliable, comprehensive data and insights. This is where Nimbus comes in, providing developers with the tools and information they need to identify, assess, and unlock the most promising brownfield opportunities.

By combining a deep understanding of the planning process, a commitment to sustainable development practices, and the power of cutting-edge technology like Nimbus, property developers can play a vital role in shaping the future of our built environment. Through the responsible and creative redevelopment of brownfield sites, we can create thriving, resilient communities that meet the needs of current and future generations.

If you’d like to know more about how Nimbus and our exciting new features can help take your business to the next level, go here for a free trial or get in touch with our team today on 01926 355 424 or go right ahead and book in for a demo (scroll down) so we can show you how to make the best use of Nimbus for your brownfield site strategy. 

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