Brownfield Building Plots

‘Brownfield’ is one of those terms which is regularly bandied around without most people being aware of its exact definition. In Britain it is often taken to mean sites where the land or property is derelict and ideal for redevelopment, often having been used for industrial or commercial purposes in the past. In fact the definition is a little more complex, and developers need to be clued up on what exactly a brownfield site is.

The word ‘brownfield’ is often used interchangeably with the term ‘Previously Developed Land’ (PDL), which means land which has been occupied by a permanent structure with all the necessary surface infrastructure. That means it does not apply to land used for agricultural or forestry buildings, land developed for mineral extraction, land once used for waste disposal or landfill, sites in built-up areas such as gardens, parks or allotments, or land which was once developed and where the remains of the previous structure have blended into the landscape.

Over the past few years the number of developers looking to make use of brownfield sites has grown exponentially, especially in areas where there is a housing shortage and a lack of available green spaces. With over 66,000 hectares of brownfield sites in England alone, councils are putting in place new systems to help developers looking to build on brownfield sites and at the beginning of 2016, the government pledged support for the construction of more than a million new homes on 90% of suitable brownfield sites.

Building on Brownfield: The Pros and Cons

The major drawback of developing a brownfield site is the possibility of contamination. As many of these plots have been used for industrial or commercial purposes in the past, there can be a legacy of soil contamination, leftover hazardous materials or issues with groundwater and surface water. Before a site can be built on, an experienced environmental assessor will need to conduct a thorough investigation to ensure the plot is fit for development and that the proposals comply with strict regulations. The need to acquire special licences when reclaiming brownfield sites can be a barrier for developers, but if the environmental assessment is positive and all the necessary permissions are granted, then remediation and redevelopment work can begin fairly quickly.

Because remediation work to remove hazardous compounds can be complex and expensive, developers need to factor this into their plans when looking to purchase brownfield sites and ensure that the expense of cleaning a site will not exceed the value of the land after it has been developed. That said, new remediation technologies are making this process quicker and cheaper, so developers shouldn’t necessarily be deterred by land contamination

There are lots of advantages to building on brownfield sites, both for developers and the local community. Many undeveloped sites are unattractive eyesores, with derelict buildings or uncared for land detracting from the overall appeal of a neighbourhood. By building new housing or useful community amenities on such sites, developers can inject new life into an area, bring in new jobs and investment, improve the environment and ensure otherwise unused land is put to good use.

As of March 2016, many local councils have been compiling ‘brownfield registers’ which provide developers with up-to-date information on sites which are becoming available for development, thus speeding up the process of acquiring land and constructing new homes on it.

Acquiring a Brownfield Site: Where to Begin

If you’re interested in acquiring a brownfield site for a self-build project, there are lots of routes you can take to finding an ideal plot. You first need to decide which part of the country you are interested in and narrow your search down to a manageable size, because the sheer number of brownfield sites can be overwhelming if you’re attempting to cover too large a geographical area. The best place to start is with a little internet research, with websites such as Rightmove letting you search for land as well as property, or more specialist sites such as Buildstore’s PlotSearch enabling you to narrow down your options further with various search criteria.

A little legwork can go a long way, and simply driving or walking around your preferred location can reveal sites which look ready for development. It’s worth registering with local estate agents who can keep you up to speed if new plots become available, and contacting surveyors and local architects can also be a good way of finding out about land which may be coming up for sale. If you have managed to discover who owns a site you’re interested in, making a direct approach and seeing if they are thinking about selling can also reap rewards, as can keeping an eye on the planning application lists local authorities publish. If there’s a planning application for a site, you may be able to approach the applicant and see if they would be willing to sell to you rather than develop the site themselves.

Before you bid for land, you should always work out your budget to ensure you don’t end up sinking more money into the development than you are likely to see at the end. Even if you’re purchasing a brownfield site to self-build your own dream home, being hard-headed about how much you’re going to have to spend against how much your home will be worth should you ever come to sell it must be a priority. The plot itself will be your single biggest outlay and will probably equate to a third or a half of your final budget, depending on the area you’re buying in. In popular regions such as the south-east, land will have a higher value because it is in demand and doesn’t come up for sale as often.

Finally, always be prepared to compromise. If you’re able to look beyond the superficial mess or ugliness of a site and see your way around the obstacles, you’re more likely to get the land cheaply and quickly and start the work of clearing it. If you’ve found a site where the local authorities have granted planning permission to a new build, don’t be deterred if it doesn’t fit with your own tastes. In many cases the planning department will be willing to reconsider and look at your own designs rather than see the land left undeveloped and unused.