A right state: brownfield land capacity in 2018

28 Feb 18

The CPRE have long been the undisputed champions of spin when it comes to the Green Belt, and I have continually lamented the failings of the property industry in being able to keep up with, let alone surpass, the activities of a largely amateur organisation run on the passion and commitment of a patchwork of volunteers.

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It may be that #Metoo, the Winter Olympics, and Will Grieg being on fire are causing a blockage in the usual news channels, but it took me a while to spot the CPREs latest missive, ‘State of Brownfield 2018: An analysis demonstrating the potential of brownfield land for housing’ (click here to read). But having read through it, I’m wondering whether its more elementary than that; it doesnt really say anything. The headline: theres capacity for about one million homes across the country from brownfield land.

The CPRE have long been the undisputed champions of spin when it comes to the Green Belt, and I have continually lamented the failings of the property industry in being able to keep up with, let alone surpass, the activities of a largely amateur organisation run on the passion and commitment of a patchwork of volunteers.

Many of their mantras have made it into the political and property mainstream, and indeed society at large: developers land bank, house builders dont build enough homes, quickly enough, local authorities take the easy option in identifying greenfield sites over brownfield, and there isnt sufficient infrastructure to tolerate the development of more homes. But even by the CPREs standards, this report is wearing a bit thin. By their analysis, South Cambridge has a 12 year land supply of brownfield sites, and South Oxfordshire five. But no other authority within the South East, South West, or East Anglia is identified as having a five year land supply. No authority anywhere is identified as having a 15 year supply – the bare minimum for a local plan timeframe.

In actual fact, the report proves what we all know; that in an age where we have systematically failed to deliver sufficient homes for 25 years, to rely on the 100% successful delivery of every identifiable brownfield site in the country would be both fanciful and a dereliction of duty. But even if it came to pass, that would provide just over three years supply of housing. There would be nothing left by 2022.

Housing would come to a standstill. An entire industry would be vulnerable to mass unemployment. GDP would plummet during the most volatile period of a post-Brexit Britain. Multiple local authority housing companies would be wound up, and housing associations would be unable to service their City-backed loans, putting at risk the security, health and wellbeing of thousands of tenants. The nations pensions would be decimated by malignant investment portfolios in property and housing. Homelessness would increase, and overcrowding would be rife.

Its remarkably easy to paint a catastrophic picture of a Britain at brownfield capacity, and to borrow some of the rhetoric of the more vociferous Brexiteers. Or to put it differently, to lean on the fears and prejudices of society to support a particular viewpoint. Anarchy is not going to happen. But neither will we have done anything to improve the injustices of society, which goes a great deal further than fixing the housing crisis.

I have spoken previously of the need to change the mindset of our politicians and communities in terms of their understanding of the role played by strategic land promoters in the supply of land – and not just in terms of housing, but for employment, retail and leisure, education, infrastructure.

Fundamentally, they are not house builders – their involvement starts much earlier than that. And they are not vultures praying on the carcasses of weak authorities. Strategic land promoters are the true pioneers of land and planning. They identify land before others do, and often before people understand there to be a need for development. They spend large amounts of money, and exert copious levels of energy on trying to secure a position on land. The stakes are incredibly high, and for every successful project, there is probably a similar opportunity that fails to see the light of day. Projects are continuously at risk of political intervention and often take decades to materialise. They are slated by just about everyone they meet. All for trying to ensure that the country is able to keep its lights on.

I am not expecting people to pass around the tissues, or to have a whip round for land promoters for that matter. Ultimately, its the industrys fault for having such a poor image, but for the good of all, this needs to change. Land supply needs to be viewed as an infrastructure pipeline in the same way as oil or gas. If an independent report cited that the country only had a three year finite supply of power, we would call in the national guard. We certainly wouldnt expect to see the Prime Minister holding a very public summit with energy companies to accuse them of energy banking (by the way, calling in house builders was the wrong audience for the wrong issue). We would rightly expect the Government to make it an immediate national priority to identify additional sources of energy, and they would work with specialists to source energy. They would be worried about consumers (the public), but they wouldnt expect the public to have the answers. So why doesnt that happen with strategic land?