You might imagine that local government would be on top of this issue, and they have indeed been active in identifying potentially contaminated sites. But according to Defra, 12% of sites known to local authorities as contaminated came to light as a result of planning applications. (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/513158/State_of_contaminated_land_report.pdf). Presumably, these discoveries were made in the course of Environmental Risk Assessments carried out by consultants on behalf of clients. Once a site has been identified as contaminated, it becomes subject to the Contaminated Land Regulations.

The Selection of the Right Consultancy Agency is Vital

The interaction between science, property law, planning regulations and environmental requirements is extremely complex. It’s vital that a consultant who is engaged to draw up a contaminated land report should have taken advice from legal experts in this field. The report's design should reflect this advice so that it is addressing all of the relevant issues and giving the client a clear and correct summary of the position. Existing or potential owners of contaminated land will need to talk to consultants who can provide customised guidance on contaminated land management within the regulations.

Where local authorities do know about historic contamination, they need to carry out a detailed inspection to get certainty on the type and scale of the problem. But it can take six months or more for this phase to be completed. It's not a timescale that suits most development projects.

The Most Common Contaminants

The most frequent reasons for councils declaring contamination are, firstly, a threat to human health, followed by risks to water and then by property risks. The most common contaminants reported are the metals: lead, arsenic, chromium, cadmium and nickel. Hydrocarbons, often produced by burning, are also commonly reported. This is why an advising consultant needs in-depth technical knowledge of the environmental effects of these materials and how remediation can be planned.

Contaminant linkage is part of the way contaminated land is identified and categorised. It’s a model by which the pollutant has a pathway that will enable it to affect people, animals or the environment. Soil and groundwater are the keys to contaminant linkage.

What Is in a Contaminated Land Report?

A contaminated land report seeks to protect a client or potential investor by identifying the remediation liabilities they could have if they buy the land. That is, the cost of a clean-up. Note that a developer doesn’t need to develop the land to activate the liabilities which are known as “Part 2A”. (They are set out in under Part 2A of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.)

The consultant will carry out an assessment of the property before writing the report. The information-gathering process will look at the pollution risk from inside the property and the risk posed by the surrounding area. Some areas are far more sensitive than others because of where they are situated, so the consultant will assess how sensitive the area is to pollution.

When all of the relevant factors have been taken into account, the consultant will be able to make a risk and liability assessment. This looks at the history of the site, and its previous uses, and considers whether they pose a contamination risk, before moving on to present-day activities. The historic analysis will also take into account what has happened in the locality surrounding the property.

As mentioned above, the sensitivity of the site is an important factor in assessing contaminated land. If it is near a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or has habitats that are sensitive, the report will take this into account when it gives a sensitivity rating.

Developers considering a brownfield site may find that what is now a low-rise office block was built over a landfill site or a small factory. This kind of information can be unearthed during environmental searches carried out by the consultant, who will also use archive research into licences and permits issued for various activities, to fill out the picture.

How to Assess the Quality of a Contaminated Land Report

A high-quality report will be robust in its analysis but easy to read. . And it’s useful if the report is properly structured. An overview section at the front should sum up the consultant’s view in a concise format and then guide readers into the detail, showing how the studies involved were carried out. Many people don’t have the time to plough through all the detail and need the headlines so that they can make a decision.

Clients should avoid reports that feature a lot of undigested data. This can sometimes be a sign that no one has actually written the report - a lot of tables and statistics have been pasted in from online sources, and the resultant generic commentary has been presented as a customised report. This may in turn mean that no one has the overall picture.

A good test is to ask to speak to the person who wrote the report. This will be readily agreed to by the best environmental consultancies but will cause consternation and excuses if the report is actually a “cut and paste” job.

Given the level of liability that contaminated land can bring, clients need to be sure that their consultant is fully aware of the legal, environmental, financial, business and reputational risks that may be involved. A well-researched, robust and comprehensible Contaminated Land Report will help all involved to make a sound and sustainable decision on the way forward.

If you would like to know more about the services that Argyll Environmental can provide and the support they can provide, please do check out our case studies.

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These consultancy services have been designed to support the redevelopment, transaction, corporate decision-making or investment(s) in land and property. If you require something more bespoke, or a variation of any of the listed services, then we would love to hear from you.

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