Fyson on... land-use figures that suggest Callcutt's brownfield strategy is unsustainable and unwanted

Even as John Callcutt was finalising his review of house building delivery for publication, the DCLG issued updated land-use change statistics.

Latest figures, based on data received to the end of June, show that an estimated 74 per cent of new dwellings, including conversions, were built on previously developed land in England last year.

The total is three percentage points down on 2005. "This is the first time the figure has shown a decrease since 1997, when it was 56 per cent," the department observes. The fall in new dwellings in London and the South East taken together is an even more dramatic six points.

So Callcutt's stipulation that "much more previously developed land, particularly in our towns and cities, should be used and greenfield development minimised" looks suddenly rather ambitious, even though it reflects a widespread political aspiration.

It might be assumed that the way to buck this new trend is to build at higher densities. But the latest statistics also reveal a significant levelling-off in the rise in the average density of new dwellings per hectare. After running at a steady 25 dwellings per hectare (dpha) in the years from 1996 to 2001, the density rose steeply to 39dpha by 2004, but subsequently has gone up by only one per hectare a year.

Precisely why the impetus for high-density brownfield housing appears to be slowing remains uncertain, but a fair speculation is that it has something to do with the availability of appropriate previously developed sites. There may also be growing market resistance to the densely built one-bedroom units that have figured so prominently in the output of recent years.

Whether towns and cities should be remade at undesirable densities simply to protect the countryside is disputable. Callcutt concedes that "new settlements and edge-of-town development will be needed" if government housing targets are to be met. But one challenge to house builders is to more nearly meet householder aspirations, especially in terms of space in and around the home.

According to the review, customer satisfaction surveys reveal that "the overall quality of new housing is not all that it might be". Callcutt is right to suggest that such surveys should be independently run and he makes many important recommendations on a range of matters. But the housing world still awaits the champion who will categorically challenge the prevailing orthodoxies on the green belt and countryside conservation.

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.

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