This page is one of a number that explores how urban change has created challenges in London.

Dereliction, building on brownfield and greenfield sites and urban sprawl in London

Why is there a shortage of homes in London?

London’s population is increasing by approximately 100,000 individuals annually. However, only 20,000 new residences are being constructed each year, resulting in a significant shortage of housing in London and the rest of South East England. Consequently, property prices in London are rising more rapidly than in other parts of the country.

Furthermore, the housing shortage has resulted in increased homelessness and overcrowding. The most noticeable indication of homelessness is the high number of rough sleepers on the city’s streets, but numerous others are sleeping on friends’ couches or in low-cost hotels. Approximately 170,000 individuals are homeless in London, accounting for half of the overall homeless population in the UK. Each borough houses homeless individuals; sometimes, they may be relocated to less crowded areas of the country instead of within London.

What are the reasons for building on greenfield and brownfield sites?

One potential solution to address the housing shortage in London is constructing homes on greenfield sites outside the city. These are typically undeveloped land areas, such as farmland on the outskirts of urban areas. However, this approach may result in unplanned urban growth, also known as urban sprawl, and may not be well-received by rural residents. Another option is to build on brownfield sites within the city. These sites consist of previously developed land that is now abandoned and suitable for redevelopment, often former industrial areas with soil contamination. Due to the decline of manufacturing industries, London has numerous brownfield sites.

A brownfield site in London

A brownfield site in London

Issues with building on brownfield sites:

  • Since the decline of heavy industry, sites have been available
  • Reduces urban sprawl
  • Less need for cars due to better public transport
  • Demolition of old buildings may be required
  • Land may need to be decontaminated
  • New developments can improve the environment
  • Land in urban environments is in high demand, therefore, may be more expensive

In 2019 there were 3,000 brownfield sites in London, covering 2,600 hectares, most of which are unused. Up to 50,000 new London homes will be built on 20 brownfield sites in a £400m scheme announced in 2014 by the Government.

Issues with building on greenfield sites:

  • Due to poorer public transport links, more people need to use cars
  • Urban sprawl increases
  • Land is unlikely to change back to the countryside once it has been built on
  • The land does not need to be decontaminated, and no demolition is needed
  • Valuable agricultural land is lost
  • Natural habitats are destroyed

What is the impact of urban sprawl?

A green belt surrounds many cities in the UK, including London, and is subject to strict planning controls. Its establishment in 1947 aimed to curb urban sprawl and has since helped to safeguard farmland, woodland, and parkland around London. However, with the rising demand for housing in London, some argue that less valuable green belt land could be repurposed as greenfield sites for new homes. As London’s population and housing costs increase, more people relocate to commuter settlements beyond the green belt, causing population and housing prices in the rest of South East England to escalate. Consequently, urban sprawl has shifted to commuter settlements outside the green belt, such as Reading and Chelmsford, which are experiencing rapid growth as new housing estates and business parks encroach upon the surrounding countryside.

Greenwich Peninsula

The Greenwich Peninsula aims to reduce urban sprawl by redeveloping 150 acres of brownfield land. It began in 1999 and is expected to complete in 2035. The Millennium Dome, now known as The O2, the world’s entertainment home, was completed in 2000 and was the start of the shift from industrial to residential. However, many saw it as very expensive as it didn’t attract visitors in the way that had been hoped initially.

The Greenwich Peninsular

The Greenwich Peninsular

The £8.4 billion project will split the former gas works area into seven distinct neighbourhoods comprising 5,720 new residential units, entertainment avenues and public spaces with cafes, restaurants and a 5km running trail.

The project has already created thousands of new homes, an ecology park, a cable car over the river, and the new Church of England School buildings.

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