The untapped potential of releasing car parks for homes

By Ian McGuinness, Knight Frank, UK

Town centres are currently undergoing enormous change through retail restructuring and other impacts of Covid-19, including on transport networks and mobility. Geographical analysis is helping us to understand these changes, providing insight into not only how this space is being used differently, but also how it could be used differently following the pandemic. 

The Prime Minister’s announcement of a ‘New Deal’ for Great Britain signalled a plan to invest in and accelerate infrastructure across the UK, promote a clean, green recovery and reform the planning system, amongst other goals. The recent White Paper and consultation ‘Planning for the Future’, has signalled, amongst other things, house-building that is underpinned by more strategic data-driven approaches to finding, selecting and delivering appropriate development.

Geographers have already assessed a variety of possible land types that could be used for housebuilding. There have been extensive debates about the various benefits and downsides of using brownfield and/or greenbelt land for these purposes. Similar debates have also occurred around housebuilding on floodplainscoastal regions subject to sea level rise, or erosion, and on sites prone to natural disasters, such as wildfires or landslides. Yet one particularly underexplored aspect is the scale, location and utility of space currently tied up with privately owned vehicles. 

With 103,000 public and private car parks in England, the case for analysing this is compelling. Alongside the space used up by cars and vehicles however, there are also reasons to think about this option. The pace of development of autonomous vehicles, the fact that one ReThinkX study estimates personal car ownership could drop as much as 80% over as little as 15 years, and that 76% of respondents on the National Travel Attitudes Survey agree we should reduce car use for the sake of the environment, all suggest that public attitude for change could be high. Of course reduction of car use is not a panacea that benefits everyone equally, yet there are some clear benefits and opportunities – alongside some hidden ones – to the reallocation of vehicular space to that of housing.

Within our study conducted for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government we harnessed public sector geospatial data to identify the public sector owned car parks best suited for home building. We mapped the precise location and extent of England’s 103,000 public and private surface car parks. Of these, government-owned surface car parks could yield 2.1 million homes, or seven years’ supply of housing at the Government’s stated 300,000 homes per annum target. 

Crucially, our analysis found that 91% of public sector surface car parks actually have another car park within a five-minute walk, meaning there is scope to release land for new homes whilst maintaining car parking services.

If just 15% of these car parks were selected for re-development, there is the potential to deliver more than 110,000 new homes in areas with higher public transport connectivity, with potential sales raising £6 billion in land receipts for HM Treasury.

Our study reveals the sheer scale of the opportunity to deliver much needed housing on government-owned land. One of the key barriers to this however, was that up until now there had been no clear picture of how many carparks were owned by the government and which deparments owned them. Through this work, MHCLG and Knight Frank have created the first detailed picture of which central government departments own the country’s car parks and set out the most beneficial ones to release for housing. This analysis has also evolved our understanding of this market and the opportunity for government departments to work together to deliver much needed housing. 

About the author: Ian McGuinness CGeog (GIS) is Partner and Head of Geospatial at Knight Frank, a global property consultancy. He has previously worked in local government on local development, investment and regeneration projects, in data consultancy, and as a crime analyst. Ian is also an RGS-IBG Geography Ambassador and member of the Society’s Professional Advisory Group.

Suggested further reading

Clark, S, Lomax, N. (2020). Rent/price ratio for English housing sub‐markets using matched sales and rental data. Area. 136– 147.

Christophers, B. (2019). Putting financialisation in its financial context: Transformations in local government‐led urban development in post‐financial crisis England. Transactions of the Institute British Geographers

Ferreri, M., Dawson, G. and Vasudevan, A. (2017), Living precariously: property guardianship and the flexible city. Transactions of the Institute British Geographers. doi:10.1111/tran.12162

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