We’ve recently submitted some responses to the Local Plan Review for Bristol, which aims to deliver on 33,500 new homes across the city by 2035, by, amongst other things, promoting urban living, building more densely and higher to achieve the most efficient use of land, and encouraging more brownfield sites to come forward. It ties in consistently with the latest proposed changes to the NPPF, which also specifically encourages the greater use of small sites to help diversify opportunities for builders and increase the number of schemes that can be built out quickly.

These emerging documents have prompted us to reflect on our recent experience of small brownfield sites – they make a valuable contribution towards housing delivery and so you’d hope for a relatively smooth application process. Yet invariably these are our most challenging projects – they come with a multitude of ‘developability’ issues and are often more fraught than our larger schemes

If you have a small brownfield site that you’re intending to bring forward for housing, here’s a heads-up on some of the challenges we’ve been up against recently, just so you know what might lie ahead.

Principle of development

Whilst you would reasonably expect residential development to be acceptable in principle in most urban areas, many sites still host existing uses that can prove hard to displace, even though they are far less compatible (e.g historic garages, industrial premises). You might well struggle to justify the loss of these against employment retention policies, so think ahead – check out whether you need to provide marketing evidence to demonstrate local supply/demand for such uses, and get this underway well before submitting your application.

Density

Small urban sites will by their very nature produce tighter, denser development, but this doesn’t automatically mean they are cramped or inappropriate, it just demands more sensitive design. If we’re going to achieve the new housing we all recognise is needed, we need to be imaginative and embrace more concentrated forms of development that will unlock smaller plots. The Local Plan Review for Bristol has identified focal areas for higher density in the city as well as re-introducing minimum densities for development – we’re welcoming these moves and hope to see them translated all the way down to the pocket garden sites.

Context, Form and Layout

Infill or backland sites can often straddle or be bounded by different types and arrangements of housing. In the absence of a strong architectural context (or Conservation Area), we don’t believe there is anything wrong with a well-conceived contemporary scheme, yet we’re often obliged to replicate the existing local vernacular, however inconsistent and lacking in quality. This is disappointing, but don’t be deterred – just make sure you fully understand your context and be ready with a robust design rationale, should you choose to go modern. The same goes for layout, we’ve come up against a slavish adherence to building lines that will often sterilise an entire site, and believe there is a case for relaxing such constraints in dense situations unless there is a very strong urban grain or heritage impetus to consider – again, we’re hoping the increased drive for density will encourage LPA’s to take a more flexible approach to layout and will continue to challenge for pragmatism on these issues.

Residential Amenity

Slotting a further dwelling into an established residential area will inevitably raise issues of amenity, much more challenging than if embarking on a greenfield site. However, these shouldn’t be insurmountable or dictate an instant refusal.

Instead it will require some creativity and willingness from both sides – be it the orientation of buildings, clever placing of windows, or the relaxation of privacy distances and daylight standards in some instances. Whilst we’re always striving for the best possible design solution for every site, we also recognise that not all schemes are perfect and that it’s okay for some to be just good enough. If we let one compromised amenity standard scupper an entire development, we’ll never bring enough small sites forward.

Parking

Many urban sites need no car parking; there is simply no justification for requiring it. Admittedly we’ve not hit this issue negatively with LPA’s very often (more often it’s our clients who press for it), but it should be a given. If the site isn’t large enough to accommodate parking and is located in a sustainable, well connected area, then standards should be relaxed without justification – it must become intrinsic to the urban living mindset.

Environmental Constraints

Brownfield land can throw up all number of ‘developability’ issues, and we’ll willingly acknowledge that matters such as contamination and coal mining must be investigated to ensure any future residential development is safe. However, we’ve also encountered a desire to protect absolutely everything on site, irrespective of its environmental or aesthetic value, and this can make life difficult. The retention of garden trees or boundary walls for instance, of possibly limited lifespan or value to the street scene, can compromise the area of developable land available or worse still sterilise a site altogether. We’ll keep pushing for balanced development that keeps these sorts of constraints in check.

Neighbours

Any urban development with near neighbours will inevitably throw-up objections – it’s human nature to resist change. Long-standing residents will have become accustomed to living with the openness of large gardens/underused business yards in their area, and will be reluctant to embrace the loss of these to additional housing. Be prepared for this and do your homework – carry out appropriate pre-application consultations, be mindful and considerate of local concerns, but accept that you won’t garner everyone’s support. Remember, neighbour objections don’t always mean that development is inappropriate, and LPA’s will need to be equally robust on this issue if they are to foster the small site revolution that the NPPF envisages.

Well, if that’s not enough to put you off, we hope it’s braced you for the ‘small brownfield site’ challenge. We’ve come out of the application process with some projects feeling like consent has been ‘wrought’ out of the ground – we resolve one issue and another of equal thorniness takes its place. But don’t let that put you off – urban living and brownfield sites are a critical element of the strategy for national housing delivery, we just hope that LPA’s will loosen the policy strings a little to help us bring a few more forward.