UK house building is not keeping up with demand. The government's 2007 Housing Green Paper, Homes for the future: more affordable, more sustainable, has called for 3M new homes by 2020, while the creation of eco-towns, the first new municipalities since the 1960s, has been fervently promoted.
The lofty targets for new build is bad news for urbanites who seem destined to suffer the consequences of town cramming, while things are not much better in the countryside where the green belt is perpetually threatened by the bulldozer's blade.
Fortunately, another category of readily available, if rarely considered, land could come to the rescue. Power-up Google Earth and take a look at any rural area near a major UK city and you will see green landscape riven with white scars.
This is whitefield land, the legacy of centuries of quarrying and extracting activities – and it could help solve the housing shortage in some of the country's most accommodation-deprived regions.
It is estimated there will be some 14,000ha of this kind of land up for grabs over the next two decades. Not all will be suitable for redevelopment – location, intensity of excavation history and conservation issues are all possible hurdles – but the overall potential for housing augers well.
Inevitably, bringing a whitefield site back into use is likely to present different technical challenges compared with brownfield. Contamination will be less of an issue and the developmental conundrum is more likely to centre on the physical state of the sites.
Anticipated headaches include the suitability of landforms, ensuring stability and safety of cut slopes and quarry faces, burying underground services, drainage issues, groundwater control and lack of soil-making materials.
None are insurmountable, particularly if impact minimisation is considered at the pre-development phase or even integrated into the quarry's closure plan.
A typical whitefield development is likely to contain fewer than 2500 homes on a single site, so the onus will be on the developer to make it as sustainable as possible.
A safe bet for success will mean creating mixed-use developments catering for a range of housing, for example, local, social, shared ownership, individual open market sites and self-build plots, with links to community-based employment and/or good access to public transport.
Development plans would also need to consider spatial requirements for long-term community development.
Whitefield site geological idiosyncrasies present novel opportunities for renewable energy generation, which should act as an environmental, commercial and political carrot to kick-start the whitefield bandwagon.
For example, south-facing slopes and quarry faces can be used for solar capture and wind turbine accommodation, while filled landforms may provide a glove-like fit for ground-source heat pumps.
With the increasingly rigorous implementation of low energy design criteria and the obsolescence of the office environment by the IT revolution, whitefield communities would be ideally placed to attain net zero carbon emissions.
As shown by Cornwall's Eden project, which is built in an old china clay pit, the whitefield challenge is a catalyst for innovation. Another example is the floating villages – already proposed in the Netherlands – on flooded gravel pits.
With some of the most pre-eminent architects and remediation experts in the world at our disposal, the prospects are exciting and it is time to reclaim our whitefield land.
Frank Westcott is head of the brownfield redevelopment team at environmental consultant RSK Group.
Whitefield land – some technical challenges
- Landform – major re-grading, using stockpiled overburden for filling, may be required to create a suitable landform for development.
- Stability and safety of quarry faces and slopes – needing careful assessment, removal of loose material and possibly stabilisation.
No-build zones and safety fencing may be needed at the head and foot of rock faces.
- Drainage and services – sewers may require pumping to raise water out of low points of quarry. Services may be difficult to bury to required depths if quarry floor is in rock.
- Groundwater control – as with sewers, pumping may be required to control groundwater.
- Soil-making materials – lack of soil able to support plant growth may need to be addressed by making an artificial version from overburden mixed with green waste compost.
England's whitefields – four examples
- Home Counties chalk and brick pits: new communities on railway arteries heading out of London, as already proposed at Ebbsfleet, Kent.
- Flooded gravel pits in the Thames and Medway valleys: floating eco-homes developed around waterborne leisure and environmental activities.
- Limestone quarries in Buxton and Wirksworth: ideally located to ease housing shortages in neighbouring Peak District and developed around outdoor activities (rock climbing, mountain boarding) and other sustainable forms of tourism.
- Cornwall and Devon's china clay country: the housing sector's Eden Project. Mixed-use housing and employment in an area suffering from
an acute housing shortage.