Brownfield development

Brownfield development advice for developers

The implications for a developer

The government has decided that councils will have new tools to speed up development of derelict and underused land for new homes. Local authorities across the country will have to produce and maintain up-to-date registers of brownfield sites available for housing locally.

These new registers will help housebuilders identify brownfield sites quickly and aims to unlock land for thousands of much needed new homes. This is part of the government’s ambition to speed up house building, promote brownfield sites for development and release land to deliver thousands of much need new homes.

Brownfield development and heritage assets – what it means for a developer »

In the UK a brownfield site is defined as ‘previously developed land’ that has the potential for redevelopment.

It is often (but not always) land that has been used for industrial and commercial purposes but is now derelict and possibly contaminated.

Protecting the greenbelt is one of the major drivers behind bringing brownfield sites to the fore. There are over 66,000 hectares of brownfield land in England and around a third of these are in high-growth areas like London and the South East.

Brownfield development brings its own particular set of challenges and sites need to be assessed taking into account soil, groundwater, surface water and of course contamination from hazardous substances. Special licenses are required to reclaim brownfield sites and strict environmental regulations must be adhered to by developers.

Where brownfield sites contain contaminants remediation, which can be expensive and complex, is required before the land can be developed.

However, the reclamation of brownfield sites for sustainable development can only be a benefit for wider society. It cleans up environmentally hazardous land, removes derelict sites which blight the local area and offers opportunities not only for affordable housing, but also for local employment and even the promotion of conservation and wildlife.

Brownfield heritage and archaeology

Heritage and archaeology are not often associated with brownfield sites but this is a misconception and just as proposed development of brownfield sites requires developers to consider ground contamination and other environmental risks they must also give due regard to the potential presence of heritage assets, both buried archaeological remains and extant historic buildings.

Brownfield sites, by their very nature as previously developed land have the potential to contain buried archaeological remains. 

Not only might these remains relate to industrial activity which predates the current buildings on the site but they may contain archaeological remains which date to much earlier times, in some cases as early as the prehistoric period dependent upon the location of the brownfield site. For example, a brownfield site located near to the built-up canalised route of a river or on a waterfront may well contain preserved archaeological and/or palaeo-environmental deposits sealed beneath layers of made ground.

Similarly, proximity to a watercourse may have made a brownfield site a favourable location in the past for industrial activities such as medieval tanning or hemp retting.

There are a huge number of variations on this theme and it should always be borne in mind that brownfield sites can present the same risks from archaeological remains as any other type of development site.

In addition to buried archaeological remains brownfield sites often contain historic buildings of heritage value, most usually used to house former industrial or commercial activities, for example 18th and 19th century pottery manufacture or warehousing.

Some of these buildings may be fairly obvious to the eye due to their historic fabric and architecture.

But it is also the case that whilst there may be buildings within the site which at first glance appear to be of low or no heritage value, closer examination can result in the unexpected discovery of much earlier phases of building activity encased within or beneath the fabric of the later building.

Further information

Brownfield development and heritage assets – what it means for a developer »

Strategic land acquisition – consider heritage assets »

Topics for developers’ guide

Introduction to archaeological evaluation »

Geophysical survey »

Trial trenching »

Borehole archaeological evaluation »

Brownfield development »


Coming soon

  • desk-based research
  • aerial photography and lidar
  • cartographic analysis
  • review of geotechnical data and deposit modelling
  • fieldwalking
  • and more…