Brownfield or greenfield – it’s not a black and white issue

Wednesday 1st October 2014

Let’s change our assumptions about developing land – that’s the message from national land management charity The Land Trust and Buglife, who want to remind politicians it’s not as simple as brown versus green.

The Prime Minister has renewed the government’s focus on brownfield sites for housing, while at its annual conference last week, Labour suggested  it would look to change the National Planning Policy Framework to “strengthen brownfield first” if elected. Meanwhile the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) is continuing its call to protect greenfield.

However, it is clear that not all brownfield is suitable for development. This has been demonstrated by The Land Trust and Buglife working in partnership on the former oil refinery in Canvey Wick, Essex, hailed as a ‘brownfield rainforest’ and working with developer, Goodman to transform a disused power station into a wildlife haven at Oliver Road Lagoons, Thurrock.

Canvey Wick, Essex - an ex oil refinery and one of the top five sites in the UK for rare species (c) James Bailey

Euan Hall, Chief Executive of The Land Trust, said: “Certainly, there are areas of brownfield that are well positioned to accommodate the UK’s housing needs, but equally, there are many brownfield sites are more valuable to society and the environment as public open space. A blinkered blanket approach is damaging.

“Brownfield can be a great place for wildlife, a great place for society to engage with nature and reap the benefits of the open space, as well as being a resource to assist with climate change adaptation. Oliver Road Lagoons is a prime example with its wildflower-rich habitats supporting over 1,300 wildlife species, 50 of which, are classified as endangered.  This proves that brownfield should not necessarily be the first port of call for new developments.”

Dr Sarah Henshall, Lead Ecologist at Buglife, said: “It seems that CPRE, the Conservatives and Labour have all failed to recognise the importance that some brownfields have on wildlife or as public open space.

“As well as being wildlife havens, brownfield sites often provide communities with the only opportunity to engage with nature in urban areas, offering many more experiences of wildflowers and wildlife than many over-manicured parks with their billiard green lawn and lolly pop trees.”

Rare bees such as this Queen Shrill carder bee (Bombus sylvarum) thrive on brownfield land (c) Steven Falk

The current National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) prioritises development on brownfield land, providing it is not of high environmental value. But there are concerns that if this policy is lost or diluted, then some of the UK’s best wildlife sites could disappear and many rare and endangered species, such as the shrill carder bee, which are reliant on brownfield sites, like Canvey Wick could be in serious trouble. We could even be facing extinctions too.

Dr Henshall added: “As a nation, we are committed to supporting and delivering Biodiversity 2020 targets to protect wildlife-rich brownfield sites, but these recent reports and political announcements show absolutely no regard for this. And a continued lack of regard could have a devastating effect on wildlife, especially bugs.

Brownfield sites can provide important habitats that have been lost from our wider landscape. Since the end of World War Two, 97 per cent of wildflower meadows have been lost, leaving important pollinators, especially bees, in serious trouble. Many of these species now find refuge on brownfield sites.”

Both The Land Trust and Buglife do support brownfield developments in principal, since the majority of brownfield land is of low value for wildlife and suitable for development. But it is important to recognise the brownfield sites which have very high environmental and societal value, and it is essential that these are properly considered in the planning process.

“As the need to adapt to climate change grows, brownfield sites in inner cities and towns have substantial value as soakaways and heat islands, reducing the impact of climate change on communities in cities,” Mr Hall added. “We need to have a proper debate about this issue and work together to develop the criteria for identifying the suitability of the land, whether this is for development, for public open space or both.”