Brownfield Development

What is brownfield development?

Brownfield land is an area of land or premises that has been previously used, but has subsequently become vacant, derelict or contaminated. This term derived from its opposite, undeveloped or ‘greenfield land.

Brownfield sites typically require preparatory regenerative work before any new development goes ahead, and can also be partly occupied.

Brownfield Land

The CPRE have suggested that there are enough brownfield sites in the UK to house 1 million new homes.


Brownfield land gained political significance after the UK government set a national target in February 1998 to ensure 60 per cent of all new developments were built on brownfield land.

In planning terms, local authorities use brownfield development to help regenerate decaying inner urban areas. This approach is deemed preferable to developing on green space.

Planning Policy Statement 3 (PPS3) published in November 2006, reiterated the Government‘s commitment to the 60 per cent target for new homes built on brownfield land, stressing that local authorities should continue to prioritise brownfield land in their plans and “take stronger action” to bring more brownfield land back into use.

The national regeneration agency English Partnerships was tasked by the Government to work with government departments and a wide range of stakeholders to develop a National Brownfield Strategy for England.

Subsequently the National Brownfield Forum was established to oversee the implementation of the National Brownfield Strategy and report annually on its progress. The Forum held its first meeting in February 2009 and further meetings were scheduled to be held quarterly.

In its 2017  Housing White Paper, the Government stated that, “local authorities should give priority to suitable brownfield land well-served by public transport”. It became compulsory for local planning authorities to publish a list of suitable brownfield sites, and to make estimates of their capacity for housing. This move was said to make it easier to analyse the number of identified suitable brownfield sites for housing across the whole of England.

In 2020 the government announced that owners of vacant and redundant freestanding buildings of a footprint of up to 1,000 square metres would be able to fast-track the planning process for demolishing and rebuilding them as new residential developments within the footprint of the original building, up to a maximum height of 18 metres, including up to 2 storeys higher than the former building. The new development could be a block of flats or a single new family home.

The government championed this reform, as supporting the brownfield regeneration of towns and cities, by allowing vacant and derelict buildings to be repurposed quickly for much-needed housing. By encouraging housing development on brownfield land, it was suggested that the move would protect green spaces and help kick start the construction sector post Covid 19.

As part of its policy agenda in relation to affordable housing, and its objective of constructing 300,000 new homes per year, in late 2020, the UK government announced plans for a £100m “brownfield land release fund” to promote urban regeneration and development on public sector land.

In his October 2021 budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak earmarked £11.5bn for the construction of up to 180,000 affordable homes, with brownfield sites targeted for development.


Businesses and developers are often unenthusiastic about developing on brownfield sites because of the expense of clearing a contaminated site and the limitations on building growth.

The planning process is often seen by some as a major stumbling block to increasing brownfield development: obtaining the necessary permissions can be delayed by negotiations over clean-up operations and other concerns.

This can be the case with housing, where brownfield areas may not be suitable for gardens, although they are usually suited for city apartment developments. Developers are sometimes accused of being more inclined to construct more profitable, larger ‘executive’ housing in attractive rural settings, rather than redeveloping decaying areas with limited space.

Planning guidance is also sometimes said to be contradictory on flood risks, with PPS3 prioritising brownfield development, while PPS25 favours development in low-risk flood areas. This problem is reinforced by evidence suggesting land at risk from flooding will significantly increase by 2050.

A further area of controversy has been the designation of residential gardens as brownfield land. Planning guidance had previously placed gardens in the same category as derelict factories and disused railway sidings, leading to the practice of so-called ‘garden grabbing’ where an increasing number of new houses were built on back gardens. Councils and communities were powerless to prevent this erosion of green space in their area and environmentalists raised concerns about the impact on urban wildlife.

Less controversial has been the Government‘s decision to make publicly-owned brownfield land available to house-builders, a move particularly welcomed by organisations such as the National Housing Federation who suggested that the land should be free to housing associations to help them provide “desperately needed affordable homes.”


Brownfield registers continue to show enough suitable brownfield land is available for more than 1 million homes across over 18,000 sites and over 26,000 hectares. [Source – Campaign to Protect Rural England, State of Brownfield Report, 2010]


“In order to provide enough housing in England for everyone who needs it, we must be creative within our finite land. By making use of suitable brownfield sites, the homes we need can be built in the places we need them, while our beautiful countryside is allowed to thrive. Brownfield sites are also often close to where people already work and live, with infrastructure such as public transport, schools and shops already in place” – Campaign to Protect Rural England, State of Brownfield Report, 2019

“The Countryside Alliance believes that planning decisions should be made at a local level, making full use of local experience and local knowledge. We believe that this middle-ground, with its emphasis on localism, will – alongside the Government‘s planning simplification – benefit those areas that wish to increase their housing provision or rural businesses looking to expand, without compromising the safety of our precious natural environment. – The Countryside Alliance chief executive Alice Barnard – 2011