How could local authorities use brownfield land in response to COVID-19?

As the Coronavirus Act 2020 (“CA 2020”) comes into effect, local authorities are now expected to use their new powers and help prevent the spreading pandemic. Sara Hanrahan, Planning Partner in the Real Estate Department at Lewis Silkin, explains how London’s local authorities could use brownfield land to ease the pressure on communities, hospitals and medical staff.

These are unprecedented times and the situation is changing daily. London’s local authorities are facing huge challenges as they grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, and there’s an urgent need to find more space – both for temporary accommodation and for additional healthcare facilities. Could brownfield land provide this much needed space?

Disused land with bushes and cars coronavirus brownfield land
There are pockets of disused land across London that local authorities could use in their response to the coronavirus pandemic. Source: Future of London.

Providing more temporary accommodation

The Act has called for hospitals to discharge patients with social care needs more quickly, in order to free up beds. Local authorities are being given new powers to take over the care of these patients when they leave hospital. Part of this will involve finding them suitable accommodation.

The Government is also looking to boost the number of trained healthcare workers. These workers may need accommodation near to hospitals or healthcare facilities, not least to avoid spreading the virus to vulnerable family members.

Given the current housing shortage, meeting these accommodation needs will be a challenge. Hotels and student residences could serve as a stop-gap but these are both expensive options. Local authorities should consider whether there are any brownfield sites in the borough that could be used for temporary accommodation.

The coronavirus also poses a particular threat to those who have limited access to shelter and good hygiene facilities. Brownfield sites could be used to provide accommodation for homeless people, like the Project Malachi ‘pop-up’ hostel in Ilford that’s been built using shipping containers by The Salvation Army, with the support of LB Redbridge.

Boosting the capacity of healthcare facilities

The NHS have reached a deal with private hospitals that will reallocate an extra 8,000 beds across the UK, and free up almost 20,000 staff to help deal with the most severe cases. And the Government has already begun converting the ExCel centre into the NHS Nightingale Hospital for coronavirus patients. This is being divided into two wards to provide up to 4,000 beds.

However, it’s possible that more beds will be needed. Local authorities may be able to step in to help if they’ve identified potential buildings or brownfield sites that could be used for care units within their respective boroughs.

Officials also anticipate that local authorities will need more morgue space to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. During the Grenfell crisis temporary morgues were used, and the City of Westminster has already built a mobile morgue behind the Coroner’s Court. More will be required and, again, brownfield sites could be the solution.

Working in partnership with developers

Many residential development projects will stall over the coming months and most housebuilders have already taken steps to close construction sites. As well as using brownfield land, local authorities could work in partnership with private developers to use land that’s been cleared for development but is unlikely to see work start during the COVID-19 outbreak.

And developers could agree to temporarily lease land to local authorities, for a nominal payment. Land Securities, for example, have already agreed to allow access to some of their sites for free overspill NHS parking and mobile blood banks.

Building site with cranes coronavirus brownfield land
Construction sites across London have closed and developments have stalled. Source: Future of London.

Collaborating with other local authorities

There are a number of ‘changes of use’ that are allowed under current legislation. And the Government introduced new legislation on 24 March 2020 to allow pubs and restaurants to deliver takeaway food to people who are in self-isolation.

But officials haven’t announced any other ‘changes of use’. This means that if a local authority proposes changing the use of a brownfield site to provide extra housing, hospital facilities or morgues, this might be against the law.

Councils could get around this by agreeing amongst themselves to suspend planning enforcements against such changes of use, particularly if they can show that breaching the current rules was in the public interest.

Finding creative solutions

These are just a selection of ideas for local authorities to take forward; they’re not intended to be comprehensive. And as the pandemic evolves, there will be a need for new ideas. However, by preparing early, exploring the potential of brownfield land, and collaborating with other boroughs, private landlords and developers, creative solutions will emerge.

Lewis Silkin, a long-term partner of Future of London, is happy to offer its services to local authorities to expand on these ideas and facilitate collaboration. Get in touch with Sara Hanrahan, Clare Reddy or Anthony van Hoffen.

And for more resources on personal and organisational resilience, working from home and employment issues, have a look at FoL’s Help & guidance for working through COVID-19.