Developing a greenfield (previously undeveloped) site
Are you planning to develop on a greenfield (previously undeveloped) site but need more guidance and information on the process before you proceed?
Every now and again we receive enquiries about development on greenfield or previously undeveloped sites from people who have little or no experience of what’s involved and who would like some information and advice about the process. In this blog post we share our personal experience of greenfield site development – including land we ourselves owned that was initially burdened with a restrictive covenant preventing any use but horse grazing – to give prospective clients an insight into this complex type of project, the various steps required before a site can be determined as developable and at what stage our architectural design service would become necessary.
Option Agreement for developing on a greenfield site
Firstly, when considering developing on a greenfield site that belongs to a third party you absolutely must get an option agreement signed with the vendor of the property. An option agreement gives you, the prospective purchaser, the option to decide at the end of a specified period of say two years whether you would like to buy the land for an agreed figure. The prospective vendor will be paid a sum of money at the outset to compensate them for being able to do nothing with the land for that period of time, while you carry out your investigations in order to make an informed decision. When the time is up you either purchase the land or walk away, at which point the vendor would regain control of their land.
Without an option agreement your investment – measured in time as well as financial cost – has no security so you would potentially be enriching the value of the land for the current owner with no gain, just loss, to yourself. An option agreement of a minimum of two and ideally three or more years would be useful if you hope to take this scheme to completion i.e. to obtain full planning permission. It is surprising how long this process can take. We strongly suggest you take advice from a specialist solicitor at this point to protect your further investment, no matter how honourable the friendly landowner seems right now.
Phase 1 Site Investigation survey to develop a greenfield site
Once you have an option agreement signed, we would recommend to anyone considering a greenfield development that they have a Phase 1 Site Investigation survey carried out on the plot of land. This will be a desk-top report that includes previous uses of the land under consideration or land nearby or adjacent to it, and will identify potential sources of contamination, receptors and pathways. It is important to identify all past uses of the site since previous intensive industrial uses – even if the land looks full of nature these days – could have left the ground contaminated and disturbed beneath the covering of vegetation. Various pollutants have the potential to travel away from the source, depending on the geology, groundwater and surface water of the area, while a history of mining activities on the site may affect the stability of the ground or even leave shafts and cavities that are invisible from a surface. One example of what a surveyor would do is to consult British Coal maps to make sure there are no records of previous coal workings or mine shafts that could adversely affect your ability to develop the site. In the event of ‘bad news’ regarding the ground situation, the project could be killed stone dead at this point due to the cost of dealing with for example a mine shaft. The local planning authority (LPA) will ask for a Phase 1 survey as part of the planning application and probably a Phase 2 report too, which would carry out invasive site investigations involving taking and analysing soil samples.
Topographical site survey of greenfield land with intention to build
Assuming the outcome of the Site Investigation survey/s is encouraging, the next step would be a topographical or ‘topo’ survey as this will accurately plot the site boundaries and ground levels, and will also identify the parameters and key heights of surrounding buildings, roads and other relevant features. When the time comes to submit plans and other drawings to set out your new development, the local planning authority (LPA) will expect cross sections of the proposed scheme showing the context of the new roads and houses, business units etc within the surroundings. The Land Registry title plan is accurate only to within a metre or so depending on the size of the site and should never be used as a key source of data from which to draw up development plans – the evidence on the land eg fence posts, walls, streams etc are what counts regarding the boundaries and these will be precisely identified on the topographical survey.
Drainage survey for a greenfield site development
Following the completion of Phase 1 and 2 Site Investigation surveys and a topographical survey a drainage survey should come next. This is especially important on a site that slopes (‘falls’) away from the main road, where it is imperative to establish that it is possible to remove the foul drainage as well as the top (rain) water from the new properties. An experienced drainage engineer could be asked to cast a qualified eye over the site before engaging other survey professionals to give a ‘heads up’ opinion, as the lack of adequate fall for the drainage could well render unprofitable your proposed greenfield development project. There is, however, always the possibility to, if necessary, seek an easement from a ‘lower’ neighbour to run the drainage over their land or even install a pumping station on a larger site.
At this stage a drainage/road engineer would be engaged to provide drawings for the proposed road and drainage layout to run simultaneously with Ecclesall Design’s own initial work as it is our role to provide a site layout and houses or commercial units that take into account differing levels, overlooking issues, plot sizes, garden lengths, car parking provision etc. Working in conjunction with the drainage/road engineer means ‘joined-up thinking’ from the start, and greatly reduces the likelihood of failure later in the process. If it is probable that the road leading into your greenfield site will be required by the local planning authority to be adopted by the Council it will need to conform to the various applicable standards such as widths, turning circles and splays at junctions with main roads so it makes sense that this provisional layout is available and agreed in principal with the local planning authority via a Pre-application Enquiry – which we would make on your behalf – before anyone starts fine-tuning architectural design.
Ecological, tree and flood surveys for greenfield land, with a view to develop
At some point, an ecological survey will need to be carried out as the local planning authority will require this prior to planning permission being issued on a greenfield site. In the hopefully unlikely event that protected creatures such as great crested newts or bats are identified this would effectively stop the project, certainly for a number of years, although a number of developers may not consider obtaining this survey until forced to by the LPA. Sometimes would-be developers invest an awful lot of money before the planning application then come unstuck at the last minute as a result of a lack of thorough investigation and research during the early stages.
Alongside the ecological survey a tree survey will also be required by the local planning authority, and you might as well do it at this stage as it will allow informed decisions to be made as to whether certain trees need to be incorporated into the development. There is little point having an intended development scheme that assumes all trees can be removed if subsequently the LPA disagrees, so this is essential information for a proposed undeveloped land project. A flood risk assessment will also be required, with mitigating measures proposed if necessary.
Planning application for a previously undeveloped site
At this advanced stage it would be assumed that the developer would already have Pre-application Advice from the local planning authority (LPA) for the proposed project which indicates the amount of development that would be permitted by the LPA. In cases where achieving planning permission could be difficult, a planning consultant will bring specialised expertise to the project. A good planning consultant will a) provide accurate and honest advice in the beginning, b) coordinate effectively with the Ecclesall Design team so that between us we provide the layout and residential/commercial designs that will produce the very best return on the site’s value and c) negotiate with the LPA on your behalf to achieve the optimum outcome.
Architectural design for a greenfield development project
Developing on a greenfield site poses a series of questions that need to be answered or certainly considered before the time is right to embark on the architectural design phase. A large number of architects, to their discredit, may well not mention – or even know about – the above steps and will disingenuously provide ‘a quote for drawings’ without particularly caring whether or not the scheme results in planning permission; a cynic would note that they will get paid anyway. However, as the steps above have hopefully shown, there are a number of stages to progress through before a developer should sensibly arrive at the point of engaging an architectural practice such as Ecclesall Design to provide architectural drawings for greenfield development. We take our involvement in a development project seriously as we understand that our role is but one part of the whole process. A project with this level of complexity and financial exposure requires professionals with prior experience of successfully undertaking similar challenges. At Ecclesall Design, as well as working on projects for clients, we have ourselves developed our own greenfield site to obtain planning permission for 24 houses so we are aware in a way that most architects are not of the potential pitfalls that can occur on the long and expensive road to finally achieving that so-important planning permission.
This blog post outlines general guidance regarding the development of a greenfield site and is not intended to be comprehensive; other professionals such as structural engineers, energy consultants and utility companies would also become involved. We have touched very lightly on the involvement of the LPA and haven’t discussed the pros and cons of outline v full planning permission nor indeed the real value of obtaining pre-application advice.
Conclusion for guidance in relation to development of a greenfield site
As you can tell by now, developing a greenfield site is likely to be a complex, challenging and time-consuming endeavour. The first step must be to get that option agreement signed unless you already own the land. At this stage, a prospective developer is probably feeling concerned about the potential costs associated with establishing the feasibility of development of a greenfield site. There are great profits to be made if you are successful but such rewards come only at a speculative cost. At Ecclesall Design we feel it is our duty to advise potential clients that there is far more to obtaining planning permission on a greenfield site than just ‘getting drawings’ from an architect – even though this is precisely what some of our speculative enquirers start off requesting.
It is worth getting quotes so you have an idea of the costs involved prior to commencing a greenfield development project. From our point of view, Ecclesall Design is able to quote with accuracy for our full service package on a specific greenfield site development project once the key steps outlined above are completed and we have an indication of how many properties are required, of what type, style and size and what exactly would be our role in terms of co-ordinating the project. We hope you have found this blog post interesting and informative. It is intended to be an indication of what lies ahead; further advice regarding restrictive covenants, easements, rights of way etc that could also affect the proposed development may need to be sought from a specialist land law solicitor. After following this complex and at times frustrating process, greenfield developments that do get over the hurdles to be brought to completion are often the most profitable and rewarding type of development. We are here to help in any way we can and the sooner we are contacted the earlier we can help to guide you through the process.