Cash from clean-up

Peter McCrum investigates a land remediation project that has brought a heavily-polluted site back into productive use as housing

It's reassuring to discover a company expanding, making profits and improving the environment. It demonstrates that successful business and a positive environmental impact need not be mutually exclusive.

In the early 90s, Stephen Daubney saw opportunities from brownfield development policies emerging from government. Demands for the decontamination of blighted land was becoming more pronounced, as greenfield development opportunities were, and continue to be, limited. There was also growing concern about the pollution left by retreating heavy industry.

Daubney's reaction, as head of the Woodford Group, was to begin decontaminating inner-city brownfield sites. Initially, Woodford acted as consultants to developers, but he quickly realised that large profits lay in acquiring and remediating land before selling it on ready for development. Local authorities, flush with money in the form of Housing Association Grants, required urban sites for their housing programmes and the Woodford Group was happy to provide. From these beginnings the company gained valuable experience and expertise and came to understand that the business is all about the management of risks.

Important relationships with developers were formed, which increasingly came to rely upon the full range of services Woodford was able to offer. Larger and more heavily contaminated sites were acquired and the business quickly expanded. Today it is one of the UK's leading brownfield acquisition and reclamation companies which, to date has contributed to the clean up of over 500 acres of land that was previously considered a danger to both the environment and the public.

Fast assessment of liabilities

Daubney is quick to point out that the main strength of the Woodford Group is that in a relatively short period of time it can assess a site, give the vendor an unconditional offer and assume all liabilities for the land. Few housebuilders or developers are able to do this.

Vendors of contaminated land are more commonly presented with an offer that is thick with conditional clauses while in-depth, time consuming and costly surveys are carried out. The landowner will eventually be offered a much reduced purchase price. "We've got enough expertise, experience and talent within the group to make a quick assessment and write out a cheque. This is exactly what the landowners want. They can go out and spend the money and they no longer have any liabilities." If there is a site which best demonstrates the combined abilities of the Woodford Group, it is the Kirklees Industrial Estate in the Kirklees Valley near Bury. Terry Dean, the managing director of Consult, the consulting engineering arm of the Woodford Group, says that the site presented a full catalogue of problems to challenge the abilities of the management team. "It's easier to view Kirklees in terms of what challenges it didn't present than what challenges it did. The only commonplace issue we didn't have to contend with was mining."

The 14-acre former silk and dye works, bisected by a canalised river, housed old foundations including a 180ft chimney. Old cellars had been used to dump quantities of asbestos and large areas were heavily polluted with other major soil contaminants, mainly hydrocarbons. Extensive fly tipping contributed to further degradation of the area.

For many years, informal public access had led to major safety concerns - a child had died after climbing among the dilapidated buildings. It also provided a place for young people to congregate and there were associated problems with petty crime and the fire brigade was called out weekly to put out stolen cars that had been set ablaze.

Also, the local fishing community used several large manmade reservoirs and ponds and an unstable fishing lodge caused further safety concerns.

Land slippage and flooding potential

But that was not all Woodford had to contend with. There was poor access to the site; the steep topography of the valley showed evidence of existing land slippage and the river had the potential to flood. "This was pretty typical for a Woodford scheme," says Dean, with some pride.

The project began with the removal of all hazardous materials, including substantial deposits of fragmented asbestos sheeting, large volumes of fly tipped material and the removal of derelict buildings. Fred Dibnar, the celebrity steeplejack, was brought in to demolish the chimney and helped to generate considerable public interest in the project.

The river was diverted in what proved to be a rather elegant solution to both a development and environmental problem. "We discovered that a bridge to cross the river would cost about £125,000, but the cost of moving a 300m length of the river would also cost about £125,000," says Dean. This provided an additional acre of developable land and increased the resale value of the site. It also allowed for a more natural river course, wider and more generous than previously, with greater amenity value to the local community.

Over 2000 trout were captured and the redesigned river course provides cascades and rest pools to ensure the fish were able to reach spawning grounds further upstream. To complicate matters, the works had to be completed before the fish-spawning season. The redesign of the river also had to address flooding and erosion issues and the riverbank was reinforced with revetments and pre-seeded geo-grids.

Overcoming contamination issues

The team had to look at drainage, flooding, topography, geotechnics and contamination and determine which of these was critical to the determination of the new land form. The topography presented considerable challenges. "We needed to raise the level of the site because of the flooding potential. We also had quite a change in level from the bottom of the valley to the top, so we maximised the gradients at about 1:12, which allowed for disabled access to the new housing development. This also overcame a lot of the contamination issues because much of the old fill material could now be buried 3m below ground."

A 600m access road was constructed and footpaths were upgraded and formalised. Access to the wooded areas was provided and the fishing lodge was reconstructed and stabilised. The site was awarded Secure by Design certification and has now been sold to Miller Homes North, which is building a residential housing development.

"This is a great example of the private and public sector working together," says Dean. "The case officer at Bury council had been dealing with problems at this site for over nine years, and was overjoyed that Woodford was involved because we had done a few other schemes in the Bury area. He was prepared to change a designated boundary - the site was surrounded by sites of biological importance (SBI), to facilitate the purchase of the land. We had to ensure that we catered for different groups of stakeholders - birdwatchers, fishermen, huntsmen and the local farming community and this redevelopment has contributed to a larger programme of environmental improvements in the borough."

Overall improvements in local lives

The socio-economic impact of developments such as these is also significant. "This used to be a place where a lot of rogues used to congregate and the problems there contributed to levels of crime in the area. Now fairly expensive houses are being built, and the area is improving greatly," says Daubney. "The improved amenities has directly contributed to overall improvements in local people's lives quite considerably."

The Woodford Group continues to expand and will be moving into property development, which means the group will now be able to provide the complete package from land identification to new-build property sales. With the environmental benefits they are able to offer it is important that companies such as Woodford are reclaiming brownfield land and sparing greenfield sites. And we can't begrudge them making a penny or two along the way, can we?



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