Unlocking Potential: Best Practice for Brownfield Land Registers

The Brownfield Land Register Regulations, which came into force on 16 April 2017, require all local authorities to prepare and maintain registers of brownfield land suitable for housing-led development. These registers should be in place by 31 December 2017.

On behalf of CPRE, HTA Design LLP has looked into the process local planning authorities undertake to identify brownfield sites for development. The intention behind these Registers was to speed up the process of housing delivery, to put new emphasis on, for example, smaller sites. Planning Permission in Principle will also be an outcome for a number of the sites entered on the Register.

Our report sheds light on some of the biggest challenges facing local authorities when compiling Brownfield Land Registers. Due to these challenges Brownfield Registers are simply to fulfilling the potential they can in proactively encouraging development.

The findings should be considered carefully in order for local planning authorities to make the most use of this new planning instrument and increase the speed at which new homes are delivered through the planning system on suitable brownfield sites.

Our report makes five recommendations:

Recommendation 1: Maximising identification

The Government should utilise the opportunity of the review of the National Planning Policy Framework to strengthen the identification of brownfield development opportunities. The introduction of a requirement alone to undertake a Register is not enough to ensure additional sites get identified.  Internal process plays a significant part in whether the Brownfield Register would encourage additional sites to be identified that would not be picked up under the Strategic Housing Land Assessment, such as those under 0.25 hectares.

Recommendation 2: Visibility

The Government should create open access to HM Land Registry to ensure that local authorities have free access to all available land data. The Government should also provide guidance to address the security of any personal information to be held in the Registers. Local authorities should make use full use of the template for the Register as well as explore ways to improve accessibility of the data it holds, for example through integrated GIS mapping. An Annex of rejected or debated sites should be included as part of the Register to improve transparency and support the annual review of the Register.

Recommendation 3: Proactive engagement

The Government needs to clarify and publicise wider the purpose of the Registers to maximise the opportunities the Registers provide. Local authorities should explore ways in which to engage a wider range of stakeholders in the process. Technological innovation could provide an opportunity for this. The Government can also play a role in sharing best practice.

Recommendation 4: Collaboration

The Government should clarify the relationship of the Registers with the evidence base of a local plan and five year housing land supply to avoid duplication of work. Local planning authorities should develop strategies to enable effective collaboration between officers and teams to share skills and expertise and make the process more efficient.

Recommendation 5: Further review

The Government should undertake a regular review of the Brownfield Land Registers policy, including the development of the Register, the impact on delivering homes and the impact on the land market(Sections 6.2 and 6.8). We recommend that the Government undertakes a review of the definition of brownfield so that urban and rural differences can be taken into account to ensure suitable brownfield sites, reliant on greenfield land, can be included on the Register. The sharing of best practice between National Government and local authorities will be an important way to improve the process of developing an effective Brownfield Land Register. The role of technological innovation should be explored further to improve participation in the process and ensure data is made more accessible. There is the opportunity to explore how multi-media participatory tools can be used not just for Brownfield Land Registers but for increasing engagement in planning activities.

Summary of the key findings

Across the board, the process of collating Brownfield Land Registers was seen as a supplementary activity that flowed out of the Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment (SHLAA). Brownfield Land Registers are not currently being used as a tool to drive the identification of brownfield sites although the Government’s Planning Practice Guidance indicates that it might be possible to use them in this manner. The collation of the Register has not led to the production of any new information, or the adoption of any new procedures/tools, to identify new brownfield sites for development.

The search for, and identification of, developable brownfield sites is currently largely done by officers within the planning policy department of local authorities. Wider skills are required to make this process efficient. Innovative practices for identifying potential brownfield sites for development in lieu of resource shortages are not being explored. Engagement with the wider public, community and/or neighbourhood planning groups in the production of Brownfield Land Registers has been limited.

Since the publication of the Regulations, four of the case studies anticipated that the identification of sites would now focus on the criteria stipulated in the Brownfield Land Register, which means that sites larger than 0.25 hectares, or capable of generating five or more units, would be prioritised. However, it was found that two of the case studies anticipated that due to resource shortages the smaller development sites are likely to remain overlooked.

In some cases, applying the definition of previously developed land as set out in the National Planning Policy Framework, presented a challenge, particularly in rural authorities where there are fewer suitable brownfield sites. Rural authorities highlighted that it may be necessary to release some associated greenfield to enable development on suitable brownfield sites, but that these sites will be excluded from the Register. The statutory guidance published by the Government on Brownfield Land Registers confirms that greenfield land is not appropriate to be included in the Brownfield Land Register.

The findings of this research also highlight there is uncertainty around the purpose of the Brownfield Land Register – whether it is to provide accurate data on the amount of brownfield land available for redevelopment, or whether it is a planning mechanism which can be used to provide certainty to developers that brownfield sites are suitable for housing led-development.

Initial views on the use of Permission in Principle (PiP) were discussed. PiP is an alternative route to introduce certainty on the in-principle matters – use, location and amount of development. During discussions, local authority officers raised concerns that this process may lead to the loss of revenues compared to the normal planning application process. Estimating the development capacity of mixed use sites is also seen as a challenge. The purpose of the Brownfield Land Register may be valued more once the value of Permission in Principle has been evidenced and is effective.

The Government should undertake an early review of how local authorities are developing their Registers and implementing Permission in Principle. This must be sooner than the current commitment to a review in five years.

Please contact Riette, Planning Partner for further information (Riette.Oosthuizen@hta.co.uk).

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