Trying times

Inspections of contaminated land by local authorities are behind schedule. Catherine Early investigates.

Local authority deadlines for completion of contaminated land inspection are already slipping by 60%, according to a recent survey of environmental health officers by the National Society for Clean Air.

Although 98% of local authorities have written a strategy outlining how they are dealing with their contaminated land and most aim to have completed their inspections by 2005, the NSCA is worried that they are not properly resourced to carry out the task on time and that the government should be doing more to help.

There are approximately 100,000 contaminated land sites in the UK, covering an area larger than Greater London. In the past, the problems of contaminated land have been tackled almost exclusively through the planning application process.

But since Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act (1990) was introduced in 2000, local authorities have had a responsibility to proactively inspect their areas and ensure the remediation of any contaminated land, rather than wait for developers to buy it and clean it themselves.

Lack of resources

The survey highlighted several areas of concern, including the potential impact of resource shortages; inadequate support from legal departments; and ongoing delays in producing or replacing crucial elements of central government guidance. The figures show that only 34 sites have been remediated by just 18 local authorities - remediation requires significant financial resources, rarely available despite SCA (supplementary credit approval) funding.

The survey also found that 82% of officers are concerned that they are not receiving sufficient guidance from their legal departments. Many environmental health officers feel that local authorities are unable to offer assistance on issues such as liability, meaning that they will have to use expensive consultants and external legal teams - money many of them don't have.

One of the main reasons for being behind schedule is the lack of time and resources to carry out the inspections. Many local authorities can only employ one person to do the job, and they often have other duties as well.

Shaun Poole, technical officer in environmental control at North East Lincolnshire Council, says: "I would say that the delays are mainly down to a lack of resources. It would certainly help if we got more money from DEFRA to allow us to employ more staff. There are no specialist officers who are just left to get on with the job." He also has to deal with numerous other environmental health issues such as air quality and statutory nuisances and says that contaminated land inspections just aren't a priority for him yet.

Technical overload

Another problem is that ICRCL (Interdepartmental Committee for the Redevelopment of Contaminated Land) guidelines were withdrawn in February 2003 and although the new CLEA (Contaminated Land Exposure Assessment) guidelines were published in March 2002, they are still lacking many soil guideline values.

For a while local authorities did not have any guidelines except for some toxic substances and this held up inspections.

Some councils have used Dutch and Australian guidelines, which may lead to data problems in the future as their soil is very different from the UK's.

There is also an enormous amount of technical information for contaminated land officers to take in. Although there are many training courses that cover the technical aspects of land inspection, they are expensive and local authorities have to choose which ones they can afford.

Dee Custy, the contaminated land officer for North Somerset Council, says: "The courses seem to be increasing in price, especially the legal ones, which are the ones we need the most."

A different approach

To overcome these problems, some urban councils are dealing with their contaminated land through the planning application process, rather than through Part IIA. Developers are very keen to get their hands on brownfield sites suitable for residential housing, and local authorities, by taking end use into account, can demand a higher standard of remediation from a developer than if they have to do it themselves.

Jonquil Maudlin, acting manager of pollution control at Bristol County Council, says: "Developers have to clean the land up to the same or often better standard than they would under Part IIA so we believe this way is a better use of resources."

In fact, Bristol is dealing with 90-95% of its contaminated land in this way, as it will also save them worrying about liability and potential future court costs. Developers work with local authorities and the Environment Agency all the way through the process so that there are no delays to development once remediation has been completed.

However, relying solely on the planning process could be risky. Developers aren't interested in land where remediation costs are too high, so sites could end up being ignored if local authorities don't have the resources to do the work themselves. Part IIA is supposed to correct that, but at the moment the planning process is a familiar system and it does not cost the authorities any money because the developers pay.

Alternative views

Not everyone is worried by the NSCA's findings. Howard Price, principal policy officer at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, says that only 109 out of 354 local authorities returned the survey and that the figures on their own do not convey the complexity of the issue.

For instance, the survey does not take account of the remediation carried out through planning applications and there is also no data for the number of sites that have been inspected and found not to be contaminated.

"The deadline figures that have been bandied about are a very small part of the total, so overall I'm not too worried," says Price. He thinks that one of the main reasons why many local authorities are behind schedule is that their deadlines are self-imposed and they may not have realised how much work was involved when they set them.

He is confident that inspections will go ahead as planned. "I have the impression that things are speeding up," he says. "After all, it wasn't until March 2002 that the main risk assessment protocol (the CLEA model) was published, and before then local authorities had nothing to work with."

Assigning liability

While this may be true, some local authorities are extremely worried about assigning liability for remediation in the future. Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council is currently on time with its inspections, as it has not had many sites to deal with, but it is concerned that the legal proceedings will hold matters up. There is no case law at present and so there are not very many local authority or commercial solicitors who have the necessary skills.

Sean Lawson, principal environmental health officer at Solihull, says: "Every time you do something, you are breaking new ground. When cases start going to court I think there will be delays."

Local authorities will also have to decide who is liable to pay for the remediation of contaminated land. Some landowners might have spread pollution unknowingly and will try to avoid paying the clean-up costs.

Rik Child, secretary to the land quality committee at the NSCA, says: "Local authorities don't have the money to cover legal costs and many legal officers, busy with other duties; have put aside this work to worry about later."

In the long term, the NSCA believes that the problems faced by local authorities will actually benefit developers. Child says: "I don't think developers will start using greenfield land instead. What's more likely is that local authorities will strike a deal with developers and as long as they can build something on the land like property, which sells at a premium, they'll jump at the chance."

If this occurs, the current pain of the local authorities will become the developers' gain - and the inspection deadlines might even be met.



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