Is it safe to live on contaminated land?
At its worst, contaminated land may present a hazard to potential users of the land or to the environment. Although in most cases the risks associated with living on sites that have been previously used by industry are low.
Users may become exposed to contaminants such as by inhalation of dust or gases or contact with soil, also through food grown on the land. There may be indirect effects on users such as damage to buildings. Substances can be washed out of soil (leaching) to pollute groundwater, rivers or ponds. Some contaminants may be corrosive, and some can cause explosion or fire.
Why are houses built on contaminated land?
In most large towns and cities there are sites that have fallen into disuse. Some have been left as unsightly waste land or derelict buildings. These have an environmental and social detrimental effect on the surrounding area. Such land is known as “Brownfield” land, defined most simply as “land that has previously been developed”.
Many of these sites are in central urban locations and as industry has departed so residential communities have moved in to take their place. Although much of this Brownfield land may have been contaminated, in past years redevelopment of these sites was less well regulated and there was less concern for the management of the potentially hazardous substances present. Correctly managed, there is no reason why previously contaminated Brownfield sites cannot be safely occupied for residential use.
The Government wants to bring as much Brownfield land as possible back into use and is encouraging the regeneration of previously developed land to limit unnecessary development of Greenfield sites and preserve the countryside. One of the 12 “core principles” of the planning system is to “encourage the effective use of land” by reusing brownfield land wherever appropriate.
What if I’m selling my home?
In terms of a property conveyance, some buyers have noted that their lender may be reluctant to proceed with the mortgage advance. Some buyers may be put off by the possible presence of land contamination. But land contamination per se is not necessary a real problem.
The risks associated with living on most land that has been contaminated by past use are usually low, and, more often than not, any effects are to the value of the property due to perceived risk rather than actual effects to the health of occupiers or to the environment.
You should always seek the advice of your solicitor in the first instance. There are other bodies and sources of information that can help you, as set out below.
Environmental searches and contaminated land
As understanding of the importance of land contamination has increased, so it has become more common for solicitors to make enquiries about land contamination.
Legislation introduced in 2000 (Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990) places certain duties on Local Councils and land owners regarding contaminated land, and this has made it much more likely that possible contamination is considered when property is bought or sold.
Although not a statutory requirement, environmental searches are frequently carried out by conveyancing solicitors to identify contamination that might affect the property being offered for sale. These environmental searches are most often provided by commercial organisations and are supplied at various levels of detail, ranging from provision of purely factual information through to detailed interpretation of findings.
Generally the searches include a study of old historical mapping, land use records and other information that might indicate matters of potential concern. As a result of these searches the provider may issue a certificate that the site appears to be at minimal risk of being affected by contamination. Alternatively if contamination is suspected a certificate may be withheld, but a warning issued that contamination may be present. This is not a guarantee that contamination is actually present, nor is the issue of a certificate a guarantee that no contamination is at the property.
Find out more
In the first instance you should contact the Contaminated Land Officer at the local authority where your property of concern is situated. The Contaminated Land Officer holds information on many sites in your area. It is possible that they may have records of the former uses of your property, how any contamination was tested and details of any remedial work undertaken to make the land safe.
It might also be beneficial to contact the Council’s Planning Department and Building Control Department. Both of these Departments may also have records detailing how contamination had been managed to help you understand the condition of the land.
In addition you can contact the Environment Agency, a body that addresses pollution incidents and has powers to enforce clean-up of environmental damage.
The Law Society has provided advice to solicitors in the form of a warning card.
Your local authority can provide advice but ultimately it is your responsibility to satisfy yourself that your concerns have been addressed.
You may wish to carry out testing yourself, as physical testing of the ground in its current state is the only way to gain a detailed picture of the actual ground conditions.
However, you should note that the sampling and testing of soil and groundwater and interpretation of the results is expensive and best left to professional advisors. Your local authority can provide advice on the procuring of these professional services, and may give advice on the interpretation of the results of sampling and testing, however, ultimately the decision on subsequent action will usually rest with the property owner.
It is worth noting that only in a relatively small number of cases will the land be classified as “Contaminated Land” under Part 2A of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.
Sometimes it can be appropriate to take out environmental insurance. A number of companies offer contaminated land insurance policies.
A full list of local authority contact details is available at: www.direct.gov.uk
Environment Agency: www.environment-agency.gov.uk
Natural Resources Wales: www.naturalresourceswales.gov.uk
Scottish Environment Protection Agency: www.sepa.org.uk
The Department of the Environment (Northern Ireland): www.doeni.gov.uk