What Are Greenfield Sites and Can You Build on Greenfield Land?

The demand for housing in the UK is putting pressure on land, with the consequence that greenfield sites—those that have never been built on—are increasingly seen as a development opportunity.

As part of its strategy to meet soaring demand for housing, in 2018 the UK government set an ambitious target of building 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s.  

Ministers at the time also announced, “further plans to speed up the planning system as well as make better use of land and vacant buildings to provide the homes that communities need.” 

Local authorities were to receive new powers to make the most of existing brownfield land, and in the government’s words, dispose of surplus land that could instead accommodate new homes. 

Much has been made of the need to develop “brownfield” sites. These comprise land which has already been built upon or developed in some way, but is now available for another purpose.  

It may be a vacant site, with a building in situ having been demolished, or it might be a site with an existing building due to be demolished. 

What are greenfield sites?  

On the other side of the development coin there is greenfield land. Not to be confused with the “greenbelt”—land that acts as a buffer between towns and country and is largely protected from development, although a greenfield site can also be in the greenbelt—a greenfield site is land which has not been built on. Such sites are often in rural areas but can also be found in or close to urban areas. It can be in the countryside—for example, farming or other forms of agricultural land or forestry space—or it can simply be an open space in a town. 

While greenfield land is not an official planning term and does not exist in the National Planning Policy Framework, the popularity of greenfield sites for developers is clear.  

Advantages of building on greenfield sites 

For starters, greenfield sites are easier to build on. Brownfield sites can often feature land that is contaminated, and cleaning them up can be expensive. Developers of greenfield sites rarely have this problem. 

Greenfield land is also often cheaper to buy, in many cases being low-value agricultural land located away from population centres where construction work can be carried out more easily, with the reduced likelihood of issues with neighbours over things like the delivery of materials. 

Some argue that getting planning permission to build residential developments on farm land can be a tough ask, given the polar opposites regarding “change of use,” from rolling fields to clusters of housing.  

Advocates of building on spacious greenfield sites point to the opportunity to design community-focused developments, including the provision of schools, health care centres and community hubs.  

Why is building on greenfield sites often controversial?  

Despite the pressures to build more homes and in light of the government’s target of delivering 300,000 homes annually, the development of greenfield land is a hugely controversial topic.  

While not greenbelt land, which tends to be protected, greenfield sites are still often deemed to be important areas of countryside by those who see them every day.  

Local communities prefer their agricultural land and other rural open space to stay that way, rather than be built over for housing. There is a degree of “NIMBY-ism” (Not in My Backyard) about such development, and local politicians often fight hard for homes to be built away from countryside areas as it is in their interest to do so. 

Opponents such as the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) cite the need to retain rural landscapes, the lack of amenities or readily available transport links that arise when building on greenfield land, or the need to protect “buffer” land between villages and larger towns.  

The CPRE has also called for the prioritisation of building on brownfield sites. In a report published last year, it said housing developers were “gorging on precious greenfield land with ever greater appetite despite space being available for 1.3 million new homes in swathes of previously developed sites across the country.” 

Others, such as the Earth Science Partnership, point to loss of habitat for wildlife, while MPs in rural areas are particularly sensitive to the views of their constituents when developers want to build on farmland or other green space deemed attractive to local people. Many go on to call for homes to be built on brownfield sites first

Architects’ gripes 

Architects also have strong views on the subject. Back in 2014, Richard Rogers, the hugely influential designer who died last year, wrote that the UK needed to embrace brownfield sites instead of building on greenfield ones.  

Rogers, whose projects include the “Cheesegrater” building in London—122 Leadenhall Street—and Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5, said: “Opening up greenfield sites for new towns … will create commuter dormitories, without the critical mass to sustain local shops or services.  

“What is more, we will divert investment away from complex urban brownfield sites, and will deprive existing urban and suburban centres of the vitality they need,” he added.  

Developing greenfield sites has long been a contentious issue. But with the demand for housing reaching new heights, the debate around where to build these new homes is only going to intensify, piling on the pressure for sites of all colours to be used for development. 

Brownfield Development —A Unique Housing Opportunity