Brownfield when?

by robertmcnicol

I don’t entirely agree with Daniel Knowles’s piece in the Economist, but I agree with the general thrust – that we shouldn’t let people like the CPRE bully us into fear of building on greenfied sites.

The New Labour approach of brownfield first was an impressive piece of policy-making. We saw a major increase in city-centre (re)development rather than loads of new suburbs (although we still saw plenty of those too), which was made viable largely due to the willingness – even the encouragement – to build with much higher densities than had been previously envisaged.

The bursting of the housing bubble seems to have stopped this glut of city-centre blocks (although I remember plenty of people at the time warning that people didn’t really want this sort of development). But what we must avoid is a rush back to unfettered countryside development and sprawl. The government make noises about garden cities (I’m more of a new town person myself, aesthetically-speaking at least) but don’t have a coherent plan for getting these in place. No county council are going to decide to turn a village into a town with 60,000 residents, let alone the sort of socialist joint-land-ownership utopia that Ebenezer Howard raved about. We would need a nation-wide campaign (hello TCPA?!) and a serious project led by government to make anything like this into a reality. Labour’s Eco Towns came close to this, but failed due to the lack of public support and the end of their tenure.

Actually, we’re also missing one of the major drivers behind the brownfield first policy: rebalancing the country. Besides London (specifically the Thames Gateway, much of which is pretty deprived) the cities that most benefited from the brownfield/high density policy were northern ones – Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle… you don’t need me to list northern cities for you… were all part of the urban renaissance, inspired by Richard Rogers. This was (from what I remember) not really admitted by Labour, though Prescott’s remit – which included other North-strengthening proposals, like city mayors, regional development agencies and regional assemblies – seemed to be pretty obvious in what it was seeking to do. Instead, we now get High Speed 2, which is somehow meant to strengthen the North by making it more reliant on being able to get quickly to the South.

If we are to build on greenfield sites (oh, and it’s worth saying that we never actually stopped doing so, we just re-prioritised. But speaking generally) if we are to build on greenfield sites, then we need to decide where we do this at a strategic level, given the apparent apathy of local communities to such development. This government has so far failed to show any willingness to tackle the problem, and their approach so far (some of which is commendable, other bits not so much) smacks of the do-as-little-as-possible attitude to governing that our leading parties share.

The housing crisis is too important to be left to the hope that, with a bit of a leg-up, developers will be able to magically provide. They won’t, and it won’t help either if we could manufacture another housing bubble through the government taking on directly the risk of high loan-to-value mortgages to people banks deem unworthy of credit. We either need massive public investment in council housing (ha!) and – if necessary – the infrastructure and decontamination works that brownfield redevelopment requires, or massive public investment in something like a new New Towns project. Or both. If someone wants to come up with that in their manifesto, I might be interested.