Greenfield and brownfield land: the full story

Brownfield sites are usually defined as any land that has already been built on, while greenfield land has yet to be developed. But contrary to what you might assume, not all built-on sites count as brownfield. What’s more, brownfield and greenfield sites can both be found in urban and rural areas.

Hugh Gibbs
March 28, 2024

Brownfield V Greenfield – What is the difference?

The decision to purchase brownfield or greenfield sites can have a big impact on development timelines, budget and building constraints. Policy detail and terminology can, however, often be confused in the context of applications. Getting it wrong can have a major impact on how schemes are assessed, getting it right means you will be able to find opportunities that will pass through the planning process with relative ease.

Let’s take a look at these two terms in more detail…

Brownfield land

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

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

·       Agricultural buildings

·       Mineral mines or landfill

·       Residential gardens

·       Parks and recreational land

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 granted for the construction of 13 tower blocks ranging from 8 to 15 storeys and the provision of 517 homes, restaurants, shops and parking spaces.

An example of brownfield site as shown in Searchland
A brownfield site in Wandsworth with permission for 517 new homes (found on Searchland)

Larger urban sites, such as the conversion of the former gasholder site in London's Kings Cross, demonstrably support larger builds and alternative development opportunities, including commercial and amenity infrastructure.

Contrary to perception, brownfield land can also be found outside cities and towns – including within the Green Belt - opening up the possibility of future development in these highly restricted areas. An example is the former Eugene Bann Tennis Centre, Crab Hill Lane, South Nutfield which has planning permission granted for the erection of a block of 23 flats and associated vehicular access, parking and landscaping.

A brownfield site located in the green belt in Surrey
An example of a brownfield site with planning permission within Surrey's green belt (found on Searchland)

Greenfield Land

Whilst there is no official NPPF definition of “greenfield”, in planning terms it is a description of a site’s physical characteristics, that has the appearance of never being developed.

Greenfield is the same as Green Belt, right?

The term ‘greenfield’ shouldn’t be confused with ‘green belt’. While greenfield refers to untouched land that's being eyed for potential development, 'green belt' is a designation from the NPPF planning policy (NPPF) that protects rural land from urban sprawl. 

What types of land are greenfield?

As greenfield sites are those considered to have potential for development, they may typically be located at the edge of urban settlements. As 70% of land in the UK is used for agricultural use, this makes up the majority of greenfield in rural areas but it also may include woodlands and even open areas within towns.

Use of rural greenfield can be highly controversial, in part due to perceived negative environmental impacts. However, there are opportunities for development, including as part of the wider local authority planning strategy – read our recent post on call for sites for more insights into the planning process.

In urban settings, residential gardens (or “backlands”) are no longer designated as being “previously developed” and hence fall under the umbrella of greenfield. That said, the reported pressure to provide housing in urban hotspots such as London means that applications may be supported, albeit with planning constraints relating to size, height and density.

The benefits of acquiring greenfield land

Greenfield sites offer several advantages, especially for builders, developers and investors:

Inexpensive to buy: greenfield sites can be cheaper to buy, especially if they are on low-value agricultural land

Cheaper to build and develop on: they may only need relatively low-cost land preparation and groundwork. And in comparison to brownfield sites, will not require the demolishing of existing buildings, decontamination and remediation

Attractive locations: will often be located in desirable rural or semi-rural locations

Flexibility: provide a blank canvas and the ability to design attractive spaces that do not need to fit in with any existing buildings or structures

High residual value: A greenfield site with planning permission will be substantially more valuable for developers

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 - Effective Use Of Land - confirms that policy 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”.

In addition, local authority planning decisions should give “substantial weight” to the value of using brownfield land for development, including housebuilding, and take a proactive approach to sourcing sites.

In practice, therefore, councils actively encourage brownfield first, and/or – where practical – restrict the use of greenfield in their strategic planning policies. One factor here will whether they are required to achieve the necessary bank of land to meet four or five-year housing supply targets.

‍Does this mean that 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 granted “permission in principle” for residential development, after consultation, as satisfying the principles of use, location and number of units.

Interested parties will still be required 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.  

How can Searchland help developers source brownfield and greenfield land?

Searchland has a mapping layer specifically dedicated to brownfield sites, which combines all of the sites listed in Brownfield registers across the country. You can drill down to see sites by planning status, deliverability, plot size and number of dwellings agreed. And with our sourcing tool and visual layers those seeking brownfield sites in greenbelt areas - can do so in seconds.

For greenfield sites, a few simple filters in our sourcing tool can reveal suitable sites by plot size, planning status, distance to amenities and towns, developed area and more. 


The terms greenfield and brownfield are distinct in both definition and description, 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 to weed through prospective sites and to source early opportunities to suit your planning pipeline. If you have not already done so, why not get in touch with us today, and book a demo with our knowledgeable team.

Hugh Gibbs
July 9, 2024

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