Brownfield land: What is it, and why does it matter for planning?

Carry out an online search for land, and sooner or later you are bound to come across the term ‘brownfield’.Here we take a deep dive into how it fits into planning policy and how Searchland can help you to source more brownfield development opportunities.

Hugh Gibbs
March 27, 2024

The decision to build on brownfield sites can have a big impact on development timelines, budget and building constraints. Moreover, the terminology around planning policy can often be confusing. However, understanding what it is, and how and where to look for brownfield land means you can find opportunities that will pass through the planning process with relative ease.

In essence, brownfield is land that has been built on previously, in contrast with greenfield land that has not been developed. Contrary to what you might assume, not all built-on sites will count as brownfield.  Moreover, brownfield sites can be found in urban and rural areas.

Let’s take a look at this in more detail…

What is brownfield land?

National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) guidelines give a clear definition of “Brownfield” as being “Previously Developed Land”, or being “Land which is or was occupied by a permanent structure”.

Simple, right? However, there are some notable exceptions to this, which include land that is (or was) occupied by:

·       Agricultural buildings

·       Mineral mines or landfill

·       Residential gardens

·       Parks and recreational land

A notable inclusion on this list of exceptions is garden ground, which is no longer seen as being “previously developed”. Moreover, where previous structures have blended back into the landscape, the site may no longer be seen as brownfield.

What type of land counts as brownfield?

In urban areas, this may include redundant land which was once used for employment and industry, such as abandoned warehousing or offices. These underused urban sites may offer ideal opportunities for smaller housing developments. An example (illustrated below) is this brownfield site in Wandsworth, which has planning pending for demolition of buildings, including an MOT garage, to create eleven flats with associated landscaping.

Brownfield land filter in Searchland
Brownfield site in Wandsworth (as seen in Searchland)

This is where Searchland’s planning tool comes into its own, with access to in-depth, historical information on local authority decisions, to help save time and inform your strategy.

Larger urban sites, such as the conversion of the former gasholder site in London's Kings Cross, also demonstrably support redevelopment including associated commercial builds and amenity infrastructure.

Contrary to perception, brownfield land can also be found outside of cities and towns – including within the Green Belt – opening up the possibility of future development in these highly restricted areas.

What does this all mean in planning terms?

In a nutshell, brownfield sites are more likely to be granted planning permission.

Chapter 11 of the NPPF guidelines for LPAs confirms that “strategic policies should set out a clear strategy for accommodating objectively assessed needs, in a way that makes as much use as possible of previously developed or “brownfield” land”.  One factor here will be whether the LA is still required to achieve the necessary bank of land to meet a five, or four-year housing target.  

It goes on to say that planning decisions should give “substantial weight” to the value of using brownfield land for development, including for housebuilding. In practice, therefore, councils actively encourage the use of brownfield in planning applications.

Local planning authorities are also required to “take a pro-active approach” to sourcing and “helping to bring forward” building land for development. One key way in which this is implemented – and where it gets really exciting - is through the Brownfield Land Register.

What is the brownfield register?

Since 2018, any local authority in England that creates a local plan must keep up-to-date, public records of brownfield sites, which are suitable for housing development, in their local area.  

Criteria for entry in the Brownfield Land Register include:

·       An area of at least 0.25 ha/capable of supporting 5 dwellings

·       Suitable for residential development

·       No legal or ownership constraints

·       Achievable within 15 years

(Source: Town & Country Planning Regulations, 2017)

The purpose of this Government-led scheme is to help housebuilders to more easily identify sites that are suitable for development. Included in the register are details of site name, co-ordinates, ownership, physical size, planning status and an estimated number of dwellings (Source: Planning Portal, 2022)

Does this mean that all brownfield sites have planning permission?

Not quite. The Brownfield Land Register sets out details of all potentially suitable sites that meet the definition of “previously developed land”, irrespective of planning status. However, “Part 2” of the list includes those sites that have been grantedpermission in principle for residential development, as satisfying the principles of use, location and number of units (after meeting consultation requirements).  

Interested parties will still need to submit planning applications for these sites, including technical details of the build, however, the net result will be to both create more certainty and shorten the time needed for each submission.  

In February 2024, the government announced that every council in England will need to prioritise brownfield developments and be less bureaucratic and more flexible in applying policies that halt housebuilding on brownfield land.  

In addition, the bar for refusing brownfield plans will be made much higher for big city councils that are failing to hit their locally agreed housebuilding targets and planning authorities in England’s 20 largest cities and towns will be made to follow a ‘brownfield presumption’, if housebuilding drops below expected levels.

What can be built on brownfield land?

Often, when we talk about solving the housing shortage, we mention turning to brownfield land. But there's more to these spaces than just new homes. They're also great spots for commercial projects and renewable energy farms, like those for solar power. And there's a recent update worth noting: as of January 17, 2024, the National Policy Statement – EN3, has made it clear that solar farms are best placed on previously developed brownfield land.

What are the challenges to developing brownfield land?

Brownfield land often looks like the perfect fix for the crunch on space, especially in crowded cities. But, it's not always smooth sailing - the land itself can present particular challenges that developers, planners, and stakeholders need to keep an eye on:

Road access: Brownfield land can often be located in areas with limited vehicular access or road networks unsuitable to support heavy plant traffic.

Ecology and habitats: Land that has gone unused for generations may now be home to protected species not found anywhere else - which could prevent development especially if it disturbs the ecology of the site.

Heritage: Some sites may be part of the local heritage of the area or include structures or geographical features with historical significance.

Contamination: Before you start building on brownfield land, especially if it was once used for industrial purposes, you have to tackle any existing contamination like asbestos, lead, fuel and chemicals.

Air quality: If the land was previously used for commercial or industrial activities, it's important to consider the air quality of those who will be using the space.

How can Searchland help developers source brownfield land?

Searchland has a mapping layer specifically dedicated to brownfield land - which accurately compiles and standardises the data from brownfield registers from across the UK - presented through our intuitive and robust user interface. Not only that, users can also export Brownfield Register data when required.

Have a look at the example below; this shows sites listed on the Brownfield Land Register in and around the Greater London area. You can filter by size, drill down to find details of land ownership, and planning status and view details of the planning applications.

Brownfield sites in Greater London
Brownfield sites in Greater London (found in Searchland)

Furthermore, our strategic mapping system lets you include land ownership, boundaries and planning constraints, saving you time and resources in filtering and finding the most viable possibilities.

Conclusion - what now?

The term brownfield is often used within planning descriptions, however there are ambiguities in interpretation which may cause stumbling blocks in the planning process. From a policy perspective, the most important distinction is that brownfield sites are much more likely to achieve planning permission (and indeed may have “permission in principle”).
Searchland can help you weed through prospective sites and source opportunities to suit your planning pipeline.

Hugh Gibbs
March 1, 2023

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