NEWS / Blog / Seizing the Brownfield opportunity in London

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London.

08 DEC 2021


Guto Davies explores potential for brownfield in the capital in piece for Planning in London


rownfield development is the ‘hot-topic’ for Government and rightly so. Just this week, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has announced a further £11 million to be allocated to councils to develop brownfield land into good quality housing. This builds on the £58m announced in October, of which London was allocated £12.7m.

In last month’s Budget, the Government also announced a £1.8bn fund to turn brownfield sites into housing. Land which, according to media reports, equates to the size of 2,000 football pitches. 

Yet, given this work is being led by DLUHC, one might start to think that this is only an opportunity for left behind places in the North of England. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Whilst EIC’s recent report focused on the role a brownfield first policy could have on delivering the Government’s levelling up agenda, it’s important to emphasise that this is also relevant to communities right across London and the South East.

The development of brownfield land is popular, and that’s incredibly important when you consider how controversial some housing developments can be with local communities, particularly in the context of the Government’s house building targets. Our report highlighted how 70% of the public prefer development on brownfield land, with most respondents stating that their primary concern was the potential impact new developments would have on greenfield land. This was consistent with views in London where on the specific question of local housing, 28% said they had concerns on the impact it could have on green spaces, emphasising again the role brownfield can have in mitigating these concerns.

On housing development specifically, there were 20,750 brownfield sites suitable for housing development in 2020, as listed on brownfield registers across over 330 local planning authorities in England alone. From these sites, it is estimated that more than 1,061,246 homes could be developed. In London, that’s an opportunity to build almost 300,000 much needed homes.

But brownfield land is much more than bricks and mortar. It’s also about the economic potential and the opportunity for SMEs working in construction more broadly in London. Our report made a series of recommendations, two of which dealt specifically with improving the economic viability of marginal brownfield projects: Increasing land remediation tax relief on sites with fewer than 25 units, and updating the tax relief definition of derelict land to incorporate all sites abandoned for more than 10 years.

For London-based SMEs, increasing land remediation tax relief would help fund abnormal remediation costs which often make the difference between marginal sites not proceeding or being given the go ahead.

The regeneration of what is now the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park provided an opportunity to rethink the way urban areas are used, and demonstrated how unproductive brownfield sites can be transformed into sustainable natural assets. Guto Davies, EIC

The pandemic has highlighted the significance of open green spaces and the importance of healthy and connected communities across London. To support longer term social and economic outcomes, the Government will need the right combination of housing, retail, and commercial/industrial development, alongside enhanced natural capital. Placemaking, alongside a brownfield first policy, can act as a catalyst to support Londoners recover from the pandemic, and as a way for policy makers to truly re-think how we’ve designed communities for decades.

The construction industry encompasses 11.2% of UK GVA and employs over 2.7 million of the British workforce. The sector has played a key role in keeping the economy going during the pandemic, and will need to be at the forefront of post-pandemic recovery. Statistics show there’s a great opportunity for the sector in London over the short and medium term, with output and employment growth increasing by over 3% year, and over 8% in 2023. To make the most of this growth, particularly in London where there are many smaller brownfield sites ready to be developed, we need to do more to protect SMEs from costs and risk being shifted down the supply chain towards smaller contractors.

London has already shown what can be achieved through a brownfield first approach. The regeneration of what is now the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park provided an opportunity to rethink the way urban areas are used, and demonstrated how unproductive brownfield sites can be transformed into sustainable natural assets. As the largest new urban park developed in the UK for over a century, it is a model example of the wider environmental benefits brownfield development can secure for local communities.

Whether it is in the post-industrial towns of the North, many of our coastal communities, or in deprived areas of London, the conclusion is the same. Brownfield presents a huge opportunity for new homes and increased prosperity. With suitable sites peppered around the capital, it allows for local London boroughs to approach the issue strategically, and make targeted interventions.

While the political limelight and chatter of the Westminster bubble might currently be focused on levelling up the Midlands and the North, we must not forget the potential for brownfield in the capital too.

Guto Davies is Head of Policy at the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC). This piece originally appeared in Planning in London. Find out more about our contaminated land group.

Guto  Davies

Guto Davies

Head of Policy

Guto is head of policy at EIC.


Brownfield First

October 2021

Report from EIC into the potential for brownfield to deliver levelling up.