Some developers have done well out of the planning policy on brownfield sites. But suddenly that policy is changing once again and those same developers won’t always be backed by the government, says David Lock

Planning policy in this country has had a tendency to leap from one extreme to another – this has certainly been the case with brownfield developments.

Since 1993 the government has been keen to do even more to stop us spreading out into the countryside. There are many reasons for this. One is political the country folk don’t like to feel they are being invaded by the town folk (no matter that we are all dependant upon each other). One is neatness – people like towns to come to a stop and not merge into each other. Another is to save the planet by reducing the need to use a car.

There are other reasons too: to protect the landscape, to conserve good farmland and to stop us from leaving towns and cities behind looking like a scene from Mad Max.

Fifteen years ago John Gummer set “an aspirational target” of 65% for the amount of new housing to be built on brownfield sites. Successive ministers – including former deputy prime minister John Prescott – have kept trying to over-bid each other by raising the target and boasting about it. It was obvious that it would have all sorts of unexpected consequences. The chickens have been coming home to roost for the past few years.

First of all, the famous planner Professor Sir Peter Hall showed that what appeared to be a high level of success in the first few years was due to the fact that there were so few houses being built (the least since the twenties) and that the crazy rush to build apartments in town centres was wholly distorting the figures. That was rather embarrassing. Then it was discovered that brownfield can include disused quarries, airfields, hospitals and army camps, sometimes even within the green belt.

Whereas the thrust of policy from government used to be behind you, now it is much more a matter for the local council to decide for itself. The hunt is on for other places to build new homes

Then it began to dawn on people that the brownfield policy was encouraging the demolition of spacious suburban family homes with gardens, to be replaced by smaller homes or by blocks of flats. The flats had fewer children, so school rolls fell; local shops closed through lack of family business, and community life shrivelled away because the residents of those flats played no part in local affairs.

A national campaign to protect the suburbs started to gain momentum and the current government has backed off. Although there are still some brownfield targets at national and regional level, at the local level the latest Planning Policy Statement on housing (PPS3) allows councils to have local policies in order to protect the character of their suburbs. In particular, suburbs that are conservation areas are pretty well protected from “town cramming”, and more are being declared.

Clever developers have enjoyed a very profitable run for more than 10 years in buying up big houses, bowling them over and building more on the site. But now – all you developers out there – beware the backlash: steer clear of conservation areas of course. Check whether new conservation areas are proposed to be declared. Then, check the neighbourhood of the plot you are looking at – if redevelopment is likely to destroy trees or landscaping; cause overlooking of adjacent properties; increase flood risk; interrupt “wildlife corridors” or generate more traffic, then strong local objection can be expected. Whereas the thrust of policy from government used to be behind you, now it is much more a matter for the local council to decide for itself.

This means the hunt will be on for other places for new homes in town. There are plenty: look at the shopping parades where there is room for new apartments above shops; look at the big car parks with air space above them; look for the broken gaps in street frontages which wait to be filled; and in accordance with the current draft Planning Policy Statement on employment (PPS4), go and look for the old factories, depots and yards which could now be turned into housing instead.

Overall, the change in direction will make our towns and cities better places to live. But what a mess we’ve made during the years it took to realise that the brownfield policy was not automatically a good thing.