The ‘brownfield first’ policy has more to do with profiteering than with tackling the housing crisis
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Housing has become unaffordable to most working people on average wages in Britain’s towns and countryside. The inability of even multiple low-income households to pay for inflating rents in cities is now obvious. Buying a home in London’s boroughs is unimaginable to anyone who has no supportive family with housing equity. Dependency of both landlords and tenants on housing benefit in both the public and private housing sectors is running at £26 billion a year. Desperate policy innovations are being proposed in the month before the general election. Politicians are glibly promising discounted public housing sell-offs and fantasy social house-building programmes. The electorate is understandably sceptical.
Some truths are being told, however. Last month, the Labour peer Andrew Adonis published City Villages: More Homes, Better Communities through the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). This is a collection of essays with ideas to address what is described as the greatest housing crisis since the aftermath of the Second World War. Adonis wants to build many hundreds of new ‘city villages’, which he knows will be based largely on existing council estates. The reason is simple: the boom in land and house prices has strengthened the viability of council estate redevelopment. This is not regeneration but the forced clearance of tenants followed by probable demolition and certain densification.
Adonis is being honest. After the general election, and whoever wins, every local authority will systematically plan to clear out their existing tenants wherever and whenever they can raise funds through public/private partnerships by awarding themselves planning approvals.
Council estates are brownfield sites to municipal corporations blessed with planning powers and major planning opportunities to speculative developers, with commercial housing associations among them. This is the relentless logic of the planning policy of ‘brownfield first’, which followed the Urban Task Force report Towards an Urban Renaissance in 1999.
The IPPR vision contains a ringing endorsement by the author of Urban Task Force policy, Labour peer Richard Rogers. More homes will be built on the land. But new communities will be created, and they will be considered ‘better’. The people cleared away are unlikely to be rehoused on site under the same tenancies they hold and rents they pay today. The report is vague about where residents will be cleared to, but it will be far away. The IPPR looks forward to a new generation of public masterplanners, radical innovation in design, a wholly new approach to land development and new forms of partnership between the public, private and voluntary sectors. They say it is one of the most exciting tasks of the next generation. No doubt architects will gain in the forthcoming excitement.
There is neither the political will nor the economic means to house a growing population
The policy of ‘brownfield first’ was institutionalised by John Gummer in the mid-1990s, when the then Conservative environment secretary demanded that ‘we use every opportunity to protect greenfield sites’. New Labour administrations followed by a Liberal Democrat and Conservative coalition in the intervening two decades have done nothing to reverse the containment of development to previously developed land. Cheaper house building on redundant farmland, which exists in vast abundance within short travel distances of inflated existing housing markets, is frowned upon as ‘sprawl’. The rock of planning policy is ‘brownfield first’, and council tenants are about to be crushed against it.
To its great credit the Radical Housing Network (RHN) has realised that council tenants will be increasingly cleared from their homes. Some critics of the IPPR may agree with Labour’s Fabians that there is an overwhelming case for new public housing, but few in the RHN believe that any government after the general election will do anything other than ruthlessly redevelop council estates that already exist.
At Audacity, which I work for and which campaigns for increased global industrialisation, we argue for 250 new towns in the UK over 20 years. But we know there is neither the political will nor the economic means to plan to house a growing population. To build at that scale and pace in the countryside would undermine the inflating housing market, which was worth £5.7 trillion in January 2015, according to Savills. The estate agents eagerly advocate city villages.
There is plenty of agricultural land to buy cheaply, yet none of it comes with a planning approval that allows anyone to build new towns, or even a few low-cost homes. Many working people could house themselves, or organise builders, if the planning law did not prevent them. From the late 1990s some Irish travellers tried to solve their own housing problems at Dale Farm on a brownfield scrapyard in the Basildon green belt. The local authority denied them planning approval from 2000 after encouraging them to buy their own land. It was a hard way to live – outside the planning law. In 2011, the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, sent in bailiffs, police, and bulldozers. The High Court criticised Pickles for using the planning system against Irish travellers. The planning minister, Brandon Lewis, claimed planning was about ‘fair play’.
Fairness has nothing to do with planning, because it is about politics and economics. Not everyone could afford to house themselves on cheap farmland even if they were allowed to. The housing market is working well for a section of the middle class with the ability to borrow against equity to become petty landlords. The private rented sector holds over £1 trillion of the £5.7 trillion of equity, and is buying up much new development. This is not to be understood simply as gentrification by owner-occupiers. The redevelopment of council estates will further swell the portfolios of a new class of landlords.
The urbanist Peter Hall, who has a posthumous essay in the IPPR report, thought in 1973 that planning meant ‘the containment of urban England’. It rather meant the containment of the working class. Having hardened the containment, local authorities are setting about the clearance of a section of the workforce that no longer acts as class. Britain’s council estates will be hard places to live as they are designated brownfield sites.
- Ian Abley runs campaign group Audacity, and is co-author of Why is Construction so Backward?
Brownfield first, tenants last