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Smart planning permission strategies to build on brownfield land [2023 edition]

In England, 'brownfield' might not mean exactly what you think it means. We cut through the confusion and discuss how to get planning permission on previously developed land

24 January 2023
6 minutes read

Since the late 1990s, successive British governments have been pushing for more development on brownfield land. Indeed, they have said most new-build housing should be built on brownfield land. Why? 

Brownfield development is meant to be the alternative to urban sprawl. The supposed availability of brownfield sites is one of the main reasons that the current government continues to insist that building more housing on Green Belt land is unnecessary. Building on brownfield land is, therefore, is central to tackling the housing crisis. 

But what does ‘brownfield land’ actually mean, and how should you go about getting planning permission to build on it? That’s what we’re going to explore…

What is brownfield land?

This question is much less simple than you might think. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines brownfield as: ‘an area of land in a town or city that was previously used for industry and where new buildings can be built’. That’s also what the US and many other governments mean by brownfield sites, and often how people use it in the UK, too. 

So we’re all talking about the same thing, right? Then you look up ‘brownfield land’ in the glossary to the National Planning Policy Framework and it says: ‘See previously developed land’.

And the definition of ‘previously developed land’ in the NPPF begins simply: ‘Land which is or was occupied by a permanent structure’. From which you could end up thinking that most of the land in every English city, town and village counts as brownfield.

Strangely, it goes on to exclude: ‘land that has been developed for minerals extraction or waste disposal by landfill, where provision for restoration has been made through development management procedures’, which sounds a lot like what the US government means by brownfield sites. 

‘Residential gardens, parks, recreation grounds and allotments’ are also excluded. As well as: ‘land that was previously developed but where the remains of the permanent structure or fixed surface structure have blended into the landscape’. That last one is worth paying attention to, because it suggests that at some point brownfield land can become greenfield again. You don’t want to let your site slip over that line. 

Why is brownfield land so important?

The government says it is determined to solve the housing crisis, and that brownfield sites are a crucial part of the solution. That is why in the document Planning for the Future, published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in March, it promised to invest ‘£400 million to use brownfield land productively’ along with launching a national brownfield sites map this month (April 2020). 

This won’t be the first attempt to establish where England’s brownfield sites are. Back in 2017, the government asked local authorities to compile and publish brownfield land registers to identify land suitable for residential development in their areas. We will be interested to see how different – if at all – the new government map is from the National Housing Federation’s map assembled from all the brownfield land registers.

If you are a developer or want to be one, the key message about brownfield land is this: these are sites where the government wants you to build. So in theory, getting planning permission for housing on brownfield land should be straightforward. Of course, it isn’t always that easy… 

Getting planning permission for brownfield land: The first steps

So if you have found what looks to you like a piece of brownfield land suitable for building housing on, the first thing you need to do is see whether it appears on the local register. If it does, then you are off to a great start. 

If it doesn’t, don’t panic. You might imagine that local planning authorities have an encyclopedic knowledge of land in their area and how it is used, but that isn’t always the case. In fact, when they are assembling the list of sites suitable for development during the making of a new local plan, they will ask the public for suggestions. 

What you will need to check is if your site is suitable for housing. In a lot of people’s minds, the classic brownfield site is an old factory. Those are hard to find these days, especially in London, but if you can secure one, you’re on to a winner, right? Maybe not. 

Many London councils, for instance, are (rightly, in our view) committed to sustaining industrial employment in the capital and will resist changes of use. So you need to find out what the status of your land is, and the council’s priorities for it.

But let’s say you have bought a site that is on the brownfield register…

Is it all plain sailing from here on?

You’d be forgiven from reading the news that getting permission for a brownfield site once it has been identified as a piece of cake. That just isn’t the case. Planning authorities still have their rules and regulations that you need to follow in order to gain planning permission to build new homes on a brownfield site. Getting planning consent for developing brownfield sites isn’t the most complex thing in the world, but it isn’t the easiest either.

The best place to start is to speak to a chartered architect who has experience of producing design solutions for success brownfield land planning applications. If you have questions or want to know more, then these are the people that will guide you. Meeting all the demands of the local planning office is about understanding what they want and dealing with it. An architect will have seen this a thousand times before and can help you on the way.

Dealing with the local planning authority: What you need to consider

Looking at how to get planning for developing brownfield sites means understanding the nuts and bolts of a planning application of this nature. It is obviously far more complex than getting permission for a simple extension. Here are some of the factors that your planning application to build new homes on a brownfield site must take into account:

Road access

Can you get in and out of your site easily by road? Are the roads nearby already congested? These are questions you need to ask yourself.  Links to the existing road network must be developed and maintained so that they flow well and don’t add unnecessary traffic to the area. The council will want to know that you have this in hand and have a plan to develop the roads as the new homes are built.


The ecology of the site can be important in particular areas. Some parts of the UK are home to plants or animals not found anywhere else. You will need to assess the situation and take into account any concerns from environmental groups. Protecting our habitat and species is a high priority, so you may need to satisfy the council that your plans won’t be harmful to the local ecology.


The heritage of the site may be another factor that influences the decision to grant or deny planning permission. Some brownfield sites are part of the local heritage and so you may need to protect anything on-site that is considered part of the historic fabric. Taking this into account with your planning application can be the route to success. Essentially: Think about what was there before.


Any contamination that exists on the site already must be dealt with following the proper procedures. If the land you are proposing to build on was used for industry in the past, it could contain contaminants, including:

  • Asbestos
  • Lead
  • Fuel such as diesel or petrol
  • Other chemicals

There are protocols for dealing with each of these contaminants, so make sure you get the advice of a professional and include this in your planning application. You should also consider this cost when deciding if brownfield development is the right solution for you. 

The good news is that the techniques for dealing with contaminated land are constantly improving, including ones using plants and microbes, so you’re not swapping one form of chemical for another. This is important because people are going to live in this place, and you want to reassure them and the local planning authority. 

Air quality

The air quality can be another key factor when building new homes on brownfield land.  If the land was used for commercial or industrial purposes before, you will need to think about the quality or the air that people are breathing from this land. There may also be commercial or industrial units still in the vicinity and the way that you plan the area can have an impact on the air that people breathe.


If your site is next to or near industrial buildings that are still in use, then you will have to think about acoustic strategies, from the placement of windows to sound-blocking materials.

Good design is still crucial

Over the last 20 years, many would-be developers have made a simple mistake. Their thinking goes like this: 

  • England has a severe housing shortage
  • I have land and want to build housing on it
  • The local planning authority will give me consent whatever the quality of my design

And time and time again, their applications have been rejected. Yes, central government wants us to build and local government at least says it wants us to build, but that does not mean anything goes. Proposing to build on brownfield land does not guarantee you planning permission. So even if you are talking about a classic ex-industrial site, you need to offer housing that is well-designed, well-landscaped and appropriate for the setting. It should also be in line with local priorities: if the council says they need family homes, don’t propose luxury micro-flats, and vice versa. 

Tight or awkward plots

One of the reasons some brownfield sites remain unbuilt on is because they occupy oddly-shaped spaces. For this, you will need an architect who doesn’t have a default box that they try to put everywhere – you need one who will respond to the specific site and come up with imaginative solutions to its particular challenges. Have a look at architects’ websites – if their portfolio shows identikit projects, they probably aren’t what you are looking for.


The word ‘sustainable’ occurs 50 times in the National Planning Policy Framework. You should take that into account on any construction project, but there are at least a couple of ways it is particularly relevant to brownfield projects and that can help you get planning approval. 

First, providing there isn’t a contamination problem, you should think about whether you can incorporate some of the existing structures on the site into your new building(s). If you can’t, you should at least consider reusing some of the materials after demolition. 

The second is particularly important if you have a site that has been derelict for some time and nature has crept back in. You should aim to show that your new development will keep the site welcoming to bees and other helpful insects. 

Let’s get building

If you are thinking about developing housing on brownfield land, we applaud you. This country desperately needs new housing, and it makes sense to build near to existing transport infrastructure. That means that most new homes will be on previously developed land. But as we’ve said, that does not mean you won’t have to think hard about how to use the site, and hire an excellent architect to make sure you get planning permission so you can build on your brownfield land.

How Urbanist Architecture can help you

Urbanist Architecture is a London-based RIBA chartered architecture and planning practice with offices in Greenwich and Belgravia. With a dedicated focus in proven design and planning strategies, and expertise in new build homes, we help homeowners, landowners and developers achieve ROI-focused results.

If you would like us to provide you with a Free Feasibility Assessment of your brownfield project or think you are ready to start the design process, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Contact us now.

Ufuk Bahar, Founder and Managing Director of Urbanist Architecture

Ufuk Bahar

Urbanist Architecture’s founder and managing director, Ufuk Bahar takes personal charge of some of our larger projects, focusing particularly on Green Belt developments, new-build flats and housing and high-end full refurbishments.

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