1. Built environment
March 2, 2016

Why Brownfield is not enough to solve London’s housing crisis

By Barney Stringer

The first of a short series looking at different options for solving London’s housing problems.  

In the debate about London’s housing shortage, “brownfield” is often talked of as if there were vast swathes of unused land waiting to be reclaimed. The truth is, almost all London’s land is already used for something – and changing its use is slow, expensive and hard.

Brownfield must deliver much of the housing London needs, but a new report by Quod and homelessness charity Shelter finds that brownfield will not be enough – and urges the next mayor not to rule out other approaches.

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So how is London’s land used? About two-thirds of the developed land already has housing on it. Of the rest, most is used for transport (including 15,000 km of roads), town centres and vital urban infrastructure like schools and hospitals.

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That leaves about 9 per cent of London, which is essentially “employment land”. This is used for all sorts of things – light industry, distribution depots, leisure, retail warehouses, sewage works.

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To build housing on this land means removing something else first. That can and should be done in many places – but it is slow, difficult and expensive. It may mean finding a new place for existing uses, decontaminating land, and building new stations or other infrastructure.

This painstaking land-use change is happening in many places already – so what scope is there for more to be done?

About half of non-housing brownfield land that is currently in employment uses – the half that is most suitable for redevelopment – is already earmarked for change in the mayor’s “Opportunity Areas”. Tens of thousands of homes are being built in places such as Kings Cross, Stratford and Nine Elms. This is already part of London’s current land supply.

If brownfield is to deliver more on top of these Opportunity Areas, some very difficult choices need to be made. Getting more out of brownfield is not an “easy option” – and if brownfield is our only option it is highly unlikely that London will be able to build enough new homes quickly enough.

The history of successful brownfield developments in London – like Kings Cross or Vauxhall/Nine Elms/Battersea – is that it can take many decades to deliver, and may finally need major public investment in infrastructure.

We can get more from brownfield, but it will not be quick and it will not be cheap. And we cannot expect it to deliver all the homes London so urgently needs. To fill the current gap in delivery using brownfield alone would mean the equivalent of another Olympic Legacy sized scheme, every three months or so, on top of what we’re already building. Other options simply must not be ruled out.

We cannot carry on as we are and expect housing delivery to double. We have to change things if we want enough homes. The level of housebuilding we need now has only been (briefly) achieved twice in the past – once through major public investment in council housing, and once through major expansion on greenfield land. 

Throughout London’s history, the private sector has never built more than 18,000 homes a year on brownfield land. To meet the city’s housing needs, we have to consider other options.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at one of those options: garden cities.

Barney Stringer is a director at regeneration consultancy Quod. This article was originally posted on his blog.

The firm’s report, “Brownfield is Not Enough”, published with housing charity Shelter, is available here.

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