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Opinion: Brownfield Must Come First

Published on: 26 Nov, 2013
Updated on: 26 Nov, 2013
The Guildford Plaza site at the bottom of the Portsmouth Road.

The Guildford Plaza site at the bottom of the Portsmouth Road.

by Martin Giles

“Brownfield first!” is a constant theme in the growing campaigns against development of our green belt.

Opinion Logo 2It is understandable.  Most of us would prefer to see the utilisation of sites that have previously been developed, and there are quite a few of them in the town of Guildford alone.

Cllr Monika Juneja, lead borough councillor for planning, said herself on the radio yesterday (November 25), in her spat with Melissa Kite of the Daily Mail: “We in Guildford don’t want to build on green belt. We are saying once we have built on the brownfield sites, where should we go?”

So what’s the problem? Why can’t the brownfield development proceed? Homes are needed and some brownfield sites, at least, are there.

Well firstly, sites are categorised for a certain sort of development, so if it has previously been used as a factory, or as offices, or for shops, a change of use has required approval, until recently at least.

Conditions, in the form of legal covenants, can also apply requiring anyone buying a site to only use it for certain purposes. Vendors are not keen to sell at one price, for a certain category of development, say offices, only to see the site value increase hugely if used for housing, often more profitable.

Also, whoever owns the site has to want to develop it. There are complaints across the country at the moment that land owners with large portfolios of land assets are hanging on to them, undeveloped, hoping that their market value will continue to rise.

It is a very good bet they will. As Cllr Billington (Con, Tillingbourne) said recently in a planning debate: “Land is a precious resource. They have stopped making it.”

So what is to be done? Surely it can’t be right that green belt land is developed while brownfield sites are left unused?

Within the council’s extensive consultation documentation there is listed over 100 hectares of less controversial brownfield sites in the Borough of Guildford. If built at a density of 40 homes per hectare, just under the average in England, these sites alone would be sufficient for around 4,000 homes.

Guildford Plaza 4 475

A closer view revealing the frontage of the grade II listed, Caleb Lovejoy almshouses in Bury Street, for many years overshadowed by the CEGB office tower block.

But we should resist simply blaming the borough council. They might be the planning authority but they cannot force land owners to develop. And that is a large part of the problem.

In a time when the central government’s irresponsible policies affecting population have so clearly failed we, particularly those of us in the south east, are left with an inexorable demand for new homes.

Few would argue we should not build any, even though it might be similar to someone, faced with a flooded bathroom, mopping the floor before turning off the taps.

But, if we agree that at least some new homes are required, surely we should use the brownfield sites first and as a matter of urgency. At such a time it is immoral for land owners to prevent or delay their development for housing.

Councils must be given sufficient authority to force this to happen. They should be able to simply recategorise land for housing (recent legislative changes should help here) and there needs to be sufficient financial penalties that can be imposed to prevent land owners sitting empty sites.

If anyone wants to see an example of this problem they need only go to the bottom of the Portsmouth Road, just around the corner from St Nicolas Church. It has now been named, for some reason, “Guildford Plaza”. The old Central Electricity Generating Board offices used to be here but they were knocked flat around a decade ago, in part, probably, to avoid Council Tax.

The owners seemed uninterested in redevelopment without a committed tenant for a new office block so, since then, it has laid empty, reminiscent of a post-war bomb site, with weeds gradually colonising the rubble strewn space, surrounded by dull hoardings becoming shoddier by the day.

All this in one of the most affluent towns in England but a town, nonetheless, with an acute and growing housing shortage.

We should all be angry that this has happened but we should target our anger on the central government, the same government that is insisting on house building targets in our already overcrowded corner of the country.

Legislation must be introduced to stop this wastage and quickly. Not one sod of green belt should be turned until the brownfield sites, like the Guildford Plaza, have been turned into attractive and affordable homes, sold or let, preferably, to local young people.

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test 3 Responses to Opinion: Brownfield Must Come First

  1. Graham Moore Reply

    November 26, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    Congratulations on your excellent article today.

    You have put your finger on the nub of the problem, i.e. immigration, whether that is immigration into the South East of England in general, or Guildford Borough in particular. While it is true that immigration tends to increase the Gross National Product (GNP), and maybe even the GNP per head, immigrants don’t pay for all the extra infrastructure which is required to maintain our traditional living standards.

    Landowners should be obliged, by central government, to use their land to build new homes, particularly on brownfield sites. It follows that local boroughs must be given the power of compulsory purchase. Moreover since new homes place a considerable burden on the infrastructure, particularly local roads, schools, hospitals, etc., any new housing development, which increases the value of land as a result of change of use, should carry with it the obligation on the part of the landowner to contribute to that infrastructure, that is to say out of the profit arising from such change of use.

    What Guildford needs most of all is more houses, not more office, car parks, industrial or retail space and every opportunity should be taken to open up the riverside for housing and attractive amenity space for the community.

  2. Susan Parker Reply

    November 26, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    The “Brownfield Must Come First” opinion piece is a good article and well researched. Well done the Guildford Dragon NEWS.

    As Martin Giles says, it is important that the law is changed so that there are mechanisms for ensuring that brownfield land, especially derelict land like the Plaza/Portsmouth Road site, can be brought into use rapidly. It would be good if central government appreciated this need so that the right laws could be structured soon, including urgently needed revision of the hated National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Ultimately, responsibility for this rests with the government.

    If the government do not change the law, and soon, they will pay at the ballot box. The current pressure to develop the Green Belt is unacceptable. There are provisions within the NPPF, and its associated guidance, that are designed to be a developers’ charter, irrespective of the damage that is done by development.

    They might like to remember that Guildford is a marginal constituency. There are other marginal constituencies in other areas of Green Belt. These issues are not going to go away and the government has to understand that it is its own supporters that are angry.

    Government, in the end, will need to change these laws to give better protection for the parts of the country and countryside that we all value. Homes are needed, but so is urban regeneration.

    And I agree that we shouldn’t just blame the borough council. But our councillors need to remember that they are primarily our representatives, not the representatives of the parties to which they belong. They do each need to take personal responsibility for much more careful scrutiny of proposals and focus on the brownfield sites within the borough: both those already targeted and a raft of others that they haven’t managed to identify.

    There is a quite a lot of careless work, it seems to me, in the GBC studies, and the councillors don’t seem to be challenging the sums prepared by the planning department. We have heard too much of the mantra of “we have to build on the Green Belt” without any justification.

    For example, the studies include analysis of 4.5 hectares at Merrow Depot, which GBC are projecting will give rise to just 50 houses, at a density of 11 homes per hectare. The same proportions (4.5 hectares and 50 houses at a density of 11 homes per hectare) are projected for Walnut Tree Close. Density at the proposed 40 hectares of the Slyfield site (not the industrial site, that is separate) is proposed at 24 homes per hectare. (These numbers are from the SHLAA – the Strategy Homes Land Availability Assessment published by GBC). Given that Notting Hill, with its Georgian terraces and squares, has a density of 100 homes per hectare (almost 10 times as much) the planners need to go back to the drawing board.

    As Martin Giles and others have said we should not build on any green field sites until all the brownfield land has been used. And we need to use that brownfield land carefully.

  3. Stuart Thompson Reply

    November 27, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    Whilst I agree with much of this opinion, I would be interested to hear from some of the groups which seek to represent the views of residents in the more central areas of Guildford, where many of these brownfield sites are found.

    From memory, they are often unenthusiastic about high density residential developments on their patch. For example, a current HTAG document on the GBC consultation includes as key objectives:

    “No more dwellings for Charlotteville or the other streets of small Victorian houses”

    and

    “Strict density limits elsewhere to control (but not exclude) more dwellings”

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