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Misconceptions about the term brownfield leave developers and the public unnecessarily suspicious of such sites.

What is a brownfield site, and why are they difficult to develop? Many of the problems surrounding their redevelopment revolve around misconceptions and misinterpretations of terminology.

There is no universally accepted definition of brownfield sites or land. In a parliamentary answer construction minister Nick Raynsford said: 'There is, as yet, no specific definition of 'brown field' land, but it is usually taken to mean land previously developed for urban uses...these uses include residential, transport and utilities, industry and commerce, community services, previously developed vacant land and derelict land.'

If this is taken literally, how does one classify a site in a rural area that has had a previous industrial use, such as a tannery or former MOD land? Add to this the fact that present government usage of 'greenfield' applies to 'land not previously developed', and there is clearly plenty of scope for misinterpretation.

Those not involved in actually assessing sites often assume the term brownfield means contaminated. Indeed many sectors have difficulty in distinguishing between physical and chemical contamination to start with, so lack of clarity in definition leads many observers to equate brownfield with chemical contamination.

This causes a problem of perception that is not limited to the possibly ill informed general public voicing concerns at an inquiry. It also extends to such key players as developers, financiers and insurers, whose confidence is required to provide the impetus and meet the costs for site redevelopment.

While some developers are embracing the concept of redeveloping brownfield sites (contaminated or not), the misplaced perception of extended environmental liability issues and costly remediation often prevents consideration of fairly accessible sites by others. Coupled with uncertainty about the legal and regulatory regimes (remember the current need for a waste management licence on some sites) , it is not difficult to visualise the apparent assault course of obstacles to redevelopment of a previously used urban site.

While the geotechnical and environmental consultancy industry is beginning to overcome the barriers to brownfield redevelopment for some larger projects, there is still a lot to be achieved. Independent research is needed to clarify some of the issues, including an acceptable definition of brownfield, and this is where the National Brownfield Sites Project sees its role.

One of its chief aims is to develop links between all players in redevelopment, so it has expertise available in legal, planning, risk and financial areas as well as technical remediation considerations. The results of research on the barriers to development and mechanisms to overcome them will be made widely available.

A recently completed survey by the project team demonstrated the need for more information, such as site location and availability. The DETR's National Land Use Database survey, conducted via local authorities, will provide the definitive comprehensive database of previously developed land which may be available for development in England. The National Brownfield Sites Project intends to use the information from NLUD and other sources to develop a detailed understanding of the types of brownfield land and factors affecting its redevelopment.

Classifications of contaminated land constructed in anticipation of the proposed Contaminated Land Register (EPA1990) already exist, as do land use classifications at the DETR. However, these are summary in nature and the project team feels that a more detailed typology is needed. From the engineering viewpoint such a typology could contain a category of site and any potential remediation problems, followed by possible remediation techniques with an approximate cost per hectare.

The aim would be to give an indication of options rather than to dictate or limit possibilities, to the extent of reviewing the application of emerging technologies. In constructing a typology which would present consideration of the issues from a number of perspectives, the aim is to enhance the links between the different players, improve understanding and remove perceived barriers to redevelopment.

Promoting discussion of the issues and developing a proper interpretation of considerations in brownfield redevelopment will enable engineers and consultants to be bought into projects earlier on, avoiding many eleventh hour decisions on limited budgets. Discussion of different perspectives, reasons for and constraints on brownfield redevelopment is as important as pooling the information required for decision makers. The project welcomes any comments, and would be pleased to hear from any one willing to contribute to the debate.

Sandra Alker is a senior researcher for the National Brownfield Sites Project at Urban Mines.

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