Catherine Shoard on utilising brownfield sites for building those new houses we ‘need’…
The government cannot allow Ebbsfleet to fail. The investment already committed is enormous. HS1, too, didn’t come cheap, and public feeling about its Midlands sister depends to some extent on its success.
Plus, Ebbsfleet isn’t just any old new garden city, it’s the first of three proposed. Whither Bicester (earmarked as number 2) if this one shrivels?
There is another reason, too. The project is a de facto poster child for a significant piece of policy brought in shortly after the election. This loosens planning controls and all but guarantees consent to develop any suitable brownfield sites for housing – including, where necessary, compulsory purchase orders.
Reaction at the time was positive. We need more houses, after all. But the easy ride is also a matter of rhetoric: endlessly invoked, rarely queried. Better brownfield than green, right? Obviously it’s preferable to raze wasteland than ravage undefiled countryside.
Well, obviously! Right?
No. Not so obviously. Supposedly Arcadian greenfield Britain includes intensively farmed prairies, fields of polytunnels and industrial forestry hospitable neither to walkers nor wildlife. Indeed, it’s the destruction of much of our countryside that has made so much brownfield invaluable. The lack of human and chemical intervention in these disused quarries and rubbish dumps, railway sidings and former factories, gives nature a fighting chance of survival.
Yet even before this summer, such territory was vulnerable. In 2013, research found that over 50% of wildlife-rich brownfield in the Thames Gateway has been lost, damaged or is under threat. The fallout from the new ruling will push that figure far higher.
So we should raze all our green belt and agricultural land to build homes for our swelling population instead?
This is the politics of the madhouse.