Can We Solve the Housing Crisis Without Attacking Nature?

Vegan Life looks at environmental concerns about government plans to introduce a statutory register for brownfield land for development as well as automatic planning permission for these sights


housing crisis environment nature brownfield


Environment charities have voiced concerns after the Government announced plans to introduce a statutory register for brownfield land for development, and automatic planning permission for these sites, earlier this year (see box). Wildlife organisations are worried these new proposals could compromise an earlier promise from Parliament to ‘protect previously developed or brownfield land that is of high environmental value for wildlife’.


While the growing population requires more housing, carte-blanche to build on any brownfield land is not the answer. These areas can be rich in biodiversity, supporting a vast array of wildlife. According to the Wildlife Trusts, two of the five most wildlife-rich sites in the UK are brownfield.  One of these sites, Canvey Wick in Essex, is a former oil refinery which was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its rare invertebrates and is home to species which were believed to be extinct in the UK.


Journalist Jamie Weir specialises in rural development issues. He says: “Brownfield is often actually far more diverse than greenfield. With brownfield sites you have land which may not have been touched for decades. Nature has reclaimed it, and been allowed to flourish. Just because it has been developed in the past, does not mean it is necessarily low quality land, and to suggest that would be disingenuous.


“People often think greenfield land is just green fields: it is not. It is frequently nothing more than arable farmland which is monoculture. Think about Indonesian rainforests being cleared for palm oil plantations – these diverse habitats are stripped, to plant a single crop. Farmers are there to make profit, they need to eradicate anything from the land that won’t be profit-making, to get as much yield per hectare as possible – all the space has to be used for the crop, so everything else is sprayed with pesticides, nothing else is allowed to flourish.


“With this type of land you do have hedgerows which can host an array of wildlife, but over the last couple of hundred years, as field size increases in tandem with technological developments and machinery, we are losing more of them too. All this prohibits nature.”


Wildlife and Countryside Link (Link) is a charity which brings together 44 voluntary organisations concerned with the conservation and protection of wildlife and the countryside.  Members practise and advocate ‘environmentally sensitive land management, and encourage respect for and enjoyment of natural landscapes and features’.


Link’s Land Use Planning Working Group acts to conserve the natural and historic environment by seeking improvements to the national planning system for the benefit of biodiversity and landscape.  The group works to ensure that the reform of the planning regime in England helps to deliver better protection and enhancement of the natural environment as a key component of sustainable development.


According to Jamie: “The idea of sustainable development is a complex one: it’s a difficult situation. We are a net importer of food, and I believe we will get to a tipping point in the future where we will need more food that is grown at home, but right now we have a desperate housing crisis, so it’s a difficult line to walk. There needs to be a balanced approach, maybe some sort of qualitative approach to categorising brownfield land in the same way agricultural land is graded. It’s not all equal, and its classification determines its use.”


And in fact, this is what Link is proposing. It has published guidelines to determine ‘high environmental value’.The historic and marine environment and biodiversity.Chair of Link’s Land Use Planning Working Group Victoria Bankes Price says: “While the National Planning Policy Framework commits to protecting brownfield land of high environmental value, it fails to define it.  As a result, wildlife is continuing to suffer.  We have now provided guidelines to clarify the process for everyone.  After all, it is important that brownfield sites of high environmental value are properly considered in the planning process.  This guidance will give ecologists, planners, developers and land managers the information they need to make good planning decisions.”


So what other solutions are there? Jamie says: “With an increasing population needing more space for housing, we may not have enough space for livestock grazing land, which is generally low quality land that does not grow good crops. On a densely populated island you have to make the best use of the space available. We have to make some tough choices, not just build on every brownfield site. That may be one of the worst choices we could make.


“We need to allow nature to escape the relentless pursuit of development. Developers will often claim to move the wildlife to a new habitat, but it’s not so easy. You couldn’t just relocate huge groups of people, why should you be able to do it to animals?”


Brownfield Sites – and the Register


Broadly speaking, brownfield land is previously developed land, which is or was occupied by any permanent structure, apart from agricultural or forestry buildings. Brownfield land can be found in both built-up and rural settings. The definition includes defence buildings and land used for mineral extraction and waste disposal where provision for restoration has not been made.


The definition excludes land and buildings currently being used for agricultural or forestry purposes, and land in built-up areas which has not been developed previously including parks, recreation grounds, and allotments.


Also excluded is land that was previously developed but where the remains of any structure or activity have blended into the landscape in the process of time (to the extent that it can reasonably be considered as part of the natural surroundings), and where there is a clear reason that could outweigh the re-use of the site – such as its contribution to nature conservation.


The brownfield site register is part of a Housing Bill the Government want to put in place to meet demand for homes. A Government briefing note said these proposals were intended to ‘help achieve the target of getting local development orders in place on 90 per cent of suitable brownfield sites by 2020’.




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