Building on Contaminated Land – A Sustainable Use of Soiled Ground or an Environmental Disaster?

With a housing shortage across the UK more companies are turning to contaminated land for new developments but is this move just a clever use of soiled land or should buyers be worried?

The volume of housing needed is greatly exceeding that which is currently in development. In response to this the government has set clear targets and funding for all local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland with the ambition of one million new homes fully constructed by 2020.

The term Contaminated land refers to land where substances are causing or could cause significant harm to people, property or protected species.  Brownfield land (land previously used for commercial purposes with known or suspected pollution) is becoming increasingly integral to the process of meeting the government targets.

Contamination can occur naturally because of geology, or through agricultural use though the main pollutants are heavy metals such as arsenic and cadmium, oils, tars and lead, chemical substance and preparations like solvents, gases, asbestos and radioactive substances.

The Gravitas of Contaminated Land

There are an estimated 20,000 active and disused landfill sites in Britain, almost 8,000 of which were in operation prior to strict recording procedures.  Because of this sheer volume it can be difficult to know what secrets lurk beneath the soil.

Earlier this year the DEFRA (Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs) released a study revealing that the presence of a landfill site within 400 meters of a property takes almost £6,000 off its value.  Unsurprisingly the process of developing within the area of contaminated land is more of a hit with planners than with purchasers.

Roughly 100,000 homes are built every year on brownfield sites and although contaminated land used for development should have been cleared to a high standard, questions still arise over the methods used.  The most common practice of ‘capping’ a site using clay or concrete unfortunately does not stop the osmosis of pollutants passing into the groundwater.  Water contamination is a growing global concern with Earth consisting of 70% water; 98% of which is ocean, just 2% of the Earth’s water supply is suitable for drinking and irrigation and 1.6% of this is held up in frozen ice caps and glaciers.

The UK alone dumps almost 50 million tonnes of domestic, commercial and industrial waste to landfills across the country every year and although processes are tightly regulated and meticulous records are kept ensuring what and where we dump is monitored, landfill has not always been so well managed and this is proving to be detrimental and costly.

Many incidents over the years have highlighted the risk of building by or on contaminated land such as the Lancashire Foot and Mouth Burial Pit.

Authorities are required to survey their districts and ensure the area is decontaminated.  It is estimated that between 0.5 and one percent (130,000 and 260,000) of British homes could result in a statutory notice of contamination.

A condition of authorising planning consent to brownfield sites is that the owner must decontaminate the affected area.  When the property has been sold responsibility of the land’s well being lies in the hand’s of the new owner.  This twist in the law is something not a lot of homeowners are aware of.

Achieving Sustainability

As more problems emerge the need for safer disposable methods becomes more apparent. Countries such as Finland are developing methods for safer disposal such as burying nuclear waste 1,400 feet underground beneath a forested patch of land on the Gulf of Bothnua.  The three mile winding tunnel is estimated to hold two tonnes of spent nuclear matter and is expected to take a decade to fill.  The tunnels, spanning almost 20 miles will then be packed with clay and eventually abandoned.

If you are concerned that a property you are purchasing may be within a contaminated area you can order a GroundSure Environmental Report from Pali, which will highlight if the land in question is contaminated and to what extent.

Find out more about our GroundSure Environmental Reports on our services page and please do not hesitate to contact us for more information.