Real Estate Blog: Brownfield boost – are we looking at a regeneration renaissance?

Behind some of the current political headline-grabbing which signals that a general election may not be too far away, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, recently provided further detail on a key pillar of the government’s long-term housing plan, revealing a strategy of prioritising urban regeneration.

In his speech, he confirmed that the government will be “unequivocally, unapologetically and intensively concentrating our biggest efforts in the hearts of our cities”.

Key ideas

  1. Targeting of 20 places across the UK for urban development, including London, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Wolverhampton. Barrow – in – Furness is also intended to benefit from the proposals, being described by Gove as “the new powerhouse for the North”.
  2. Increased focus on brownfield sites backed by government funding, meaning a move away from “greenbelt erosion”.
  3. Proposed relaxation of planning rules to allow the conversion of existing commercial buildings into new homes.
  4. Introduction of a new levy via the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, meaning developers of greenfield sites will have to pay more to deliver on affordable housing and infrastructure requirements.

Will it work?

The strategy has some obvious advantages, such as maximising the potential of unused land and buildings across UK cities to create new and attractive housing, whilst utilising existing infrastructure and bringing people closer to essential services.

However, it will be interesting to see how effective this will be in practice. The success of the policy will depend on the availability of brownfield sites in areas where there is a demand for housing. The nature of brownfield sites also brings with it an inevitable increased spend on remediation of environmental issues. Ensuring that these developments are economically viable (whether on their own or with State intervention) will of course be a pre-requisite for developers.

Critics have also argued that a complete move away from greenfield development is unrealistic and assumes that the demand to live in cities is greater than the appeal of living in a rural area with access to the countryside and a home with a garden – a fact that the government’s new-found desire to change the rules on nutrient neutrality seems to recognise. Lifestyle will therefore be another important consideration, with many now preferring to get away from the city, particularly in London where Gove’s regeneration and renaissance plans will arguably be most ambitious.

The conversion of existing commercial units into housing has also raised concerns, particularly in the affordable housing sector, as industry experts question whether this will result in low quality homes. While this may not be true in every case, past examples such as Terminus House in Harlow (an office to residential conversion which gained national notoriety on BBC’s Panorama) highlight the potential for this type of conversion to produce small and substandard housing, far from the “beautiful homes” Gove envisages. If increased flexibility achieved by the relaxation of planning rules comes at the cost of developers having to adhere to important standards and safeguards, it is understandable why many are dubious about whether this aspect of the strategy will deliver secure homes for those who most need them.

Final thoughts

While urban regeneration has its benefits and could play an important role in solving the housing crisis, it cannot present a complete solution and, in practice, will need to constitute just one aspect of a wider and more varied strategy.

If you have any questions regarding the content of this article please contact Lorna Trimble.

The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.

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