Investors in UK housing are sometimes stymied by limitations on Greenfield development. Shifting green designations (and vegetation) to post-industrial sites are an option.

The topic of how to utilise UK land has been a hot topic for years. In a 2012 interview with a television reporter, George Osborne favourably credited Cambridge for “swapping some bits of the green belt for other bits.” This upset many, including the National Trust, who felt it overstepped the bounds of what had been promised in the recent liberalisation of planning policy rules. Protection of green belt and Greenfield lands was to be maintained.

But what Osborne was proposing was nothing new. In Cambridge and Cheshire East, green belt swaps are actively proposed and discussed as a means to address the critical national housing shortage. Such swaps ideally result in residential property development, including those financed by joint venture partnerships, on what was previously designated as green belt lands or designed for Greenfield use. The “swap” is to establish Greenfields elsewhere – in areas where they can be of better benefit to society. In some cases, that might even include remediated brownfield land closer to urban centres.

This is important to the sources of financing for house building for several reasons. One is that it opens up options for where new housing might be located. Another is that brownfield lands can be poorly located for where people need to live (i.e., far away from employment or transport) or that remediation of sites that were once in industrial use can be unfeasible. (Brownfields are strongly advocated for use in housing development by rural preservation organisations; that can work in some but not all instances.)

The proposal for Cheshire East hints at the impact this kind of exchange can bring. There, stakeholders request that the council release 80 hectares of publicly owned agricultural land, on which 1,800 homes would be built. Additionally, another 2,000 homes would be built in nearby Crewe. This will require a mix of green belt land and what is deemed “green gap” in local planning. The swap will mean allocating 800 hectares that separate Crewe and the town of Nantwich to establish a new green belt.

Shelter, the housing charity that advocates for broad thinking in development – and which holds the position that development of homes at all price points helps effectively makes all housing more affordable – looks favourably on these land swaps. “In order to achieve economic growth, areas that are of economic importance need to expand,” says the organisation in a 2013 publication it developed in partnership with KPMG (“Homes for the Next Generation, Lessons from the West Midlands”). “Land swaps, driven by the council, can ensure houses are built in areas of high demand while the total amount of green belt land is not reduced.”

And what of those brownfield lands that might go undeveloped as a result? The Government’s Forestry Commission has held since at least 2007 that some brownfields might be better used to establish non-residential community greenspace, which require less stringent remediation efforts. “Trees and plants have been shown to demonstrate huge potential in the reclamation and remediation of brownfield land,” the bureau said in an Information Note titled “Greenspace Establishment on Brownfield Land: the Site Selection and Investigation Process.”

Further, it’s a barrier to sustainable residential community development when a brownfield-to-housing conversion is done where those residents might depend on cars to travel to their places of work. Public transport systems are largely designed around existing population distribution, not necessarily where redundant factories now are shuttered (and may have been for decades).

The savvy participants in joint venture land investment are wise to study such matters of greenfield-brownfield conversions, as it can have a significant impact on where communities are established and why. But would-be investors should also speak with an independent financial advisor to judge where any form of land and real estate equities or bonds fit a general asset growth/income plan.