Rob Bell looks at the work of the Land Restoration Trust, which is helping to regenerate polluted industrial sites for the benefit of communities
Debate continues on how best to return land contaminated by industrial activities to appropriate use, especially where it is unsuitable for redevelopment under government targets for housing built on Brownfield land. However, the Land Restoration Trust, a partnership between English Partnerships, the environmental regeneration charity Groundwork, the Environment Agency and the Forestry Commission, has adopted a new approach aimed at saving sites from becoming fenced-off wasteland.
The Trust, which was launched in April last year, is charged with "improving the environment and quality of life for communities by providing long-term sustainable management of public spaces across England." In the next ten years, it intends to acquire, own and manage 10,000ha of previously derelict land in order to deliver community-led regeneration. However, the Trust is now moving to ensure that land in need of remediation and regeneration does not become derelict in the first place.
A deal signed with chemicals company Rhodia UK, to acquire a site at Whitehaven, West Cumbria, is the first step.
Under the terms of the deal, Rhodia and the LRT are preparing a plan for the site, based on consultation with the local community. The aim of the plan is to remediate the site and make public access possible. Ownership will be transferred to the Trust, which will manage the site on behalf of locals with the help of funds provided by Rhodia.
With regard to what should become of Whitehaven, various proposals have been made, including development into an 'industrial heritage park' on similar lines to the successful tourist attraction at Duisberg in Germany, where industrial structures have been incorporated into the park landscape, with impressive - and popular - results.
According to Euan Hall, Chief Executive of the LRT, "In cleaning up such sites there is a tendency to remediate then bulldoze the area, leaving a clean but flat and featureless landscape which requires further earthmoving - the creation of artificial hills and slopes - before it becomes an attractive proposition for development into park land. We're hoping that the integration of existing features into plans for the site's future will avoid such a problem".
In any case, Hall is not convinced that eliminating evidence of the site's past use would be the most environmentally friendly option. "A number of rare or threatened plant and animal species in the UK thrive on 'wasteland' and broken ground - the black redstart, which is found on waste ground along the Thames, is a fine example. We'd hope, by leaving some debris - in the form of broken concrete or uneven ground - that the site could become a haven."
Even more importantly, though, the deal brokered by the LRT means that remediation of the site can be followed immediately by moves to bring it back into use. "This is a new approach for us," says Hall. "All of our previous sites had been remediated then ended up sitting derelict for 10 to 15 years. This site is in the process of becoming disused right now, so it's an opportunity to avoid that intermediate phase by becoming involved at the beginning."
Rhodia UK is also enthusiastic about what Managing Director Alistair Steel calls an "elegant" solution to the problem of how the site should be managed for the future. "This is the first step in providing a long-term, sustainable future for the Whitehaven site," he says.
A dignified withdrawal
"We ceased operations on the site some time ago, and while we have obligations to make sure the land is safe and complies with environmental regulations on contamination, we don't want to hold onto the site for ever. This deal gives us a permanent solution which means the site isn't simply remediated and left with a caretaker to keep kids out."
The LRT is determined that Whitehaven becomes a site which provides real amenity to the local community. Steel says, "The land is going to be used in the future in a sustainable way. It will be looked after and actually used by locals and visitors. It could well become a tourist attraction, and bring visitors into the area."
Hall agrees: "We can't bring back the jobs that have been lost at Whitehaven, but hopefully we will end up with a site that is of real benefit to the community."
Rhodia has been praised for its willingness to work with the LRT. Leader of Copeland Borough Council, Elaine Woodburn says, "There was a genuine concern that this piece of land would become an eyesore for the local community and Copeland as a whole, but through the commitment and hard work of all the partners, a solution is possible. It is essential that the local community becomes involved and voices their opinions on the proposals. We live in a beautiful environment and this scheme would enhance it and be an amenity for locals and visitors to enjoy."
Plans are now afoot to gain additional funding so the industrial heritage park proposal can go ahead. Funds are being sought from a number of sources, including the Newlands II initiative, a partnership between the North West Development Agency and the Forestry Commission to create community woodlands.
A question of funding
Steel says: "Much still needs to be done before we can confirm that this plan will become a reality, not least success in securing the additional funding from Newlands II, which is critical to its success."
Meanwhile, plans have been developed with Copeland Borough Council, the Environment Agency, the National Trust, West Lakes Renaissance and the Forestry Commission. The plans will now be put out to consultation with the local community before final agreements are instituted and regeneration can move forward.
While Hall predicts that it will be another year before the hand-over is ready to go ahead, he has high hopes for the deal as a groundbreaker which will bring further agreements with the private sector to hand over contaminated sites which are coming into disuse.
"There should be news of another deal near Liverpool soon," he says. "We are currently working on a memorandum of understanding with the company in question. Rhodia was certainly very open to the idea, which was good news, because we had some concerns that the private sector wouldn't go for the model we were proposing. We are definitely looking for more sites with similar circumstances."
The idea of government-funded organisations taking overall control of the process whereby industrial sites come into disuse - so as to steer them towards regeneration that is of optimum benefit to local communities - is an example of joined-up thinking in action. Derelict land is detrimental to areas which all too often are also struggling with low employment and other social issues; cutting down or even eliminating the time sites sit vacant and inaccessable can only benefit the communities in which they lie.
In this case, the LRT and Rhodia have found a solution of benefit to both parties and those who live near the Whitehaven site. Hopefully other companies will see the benefit of working closely with organisations such as the Trust to manage the legacy of UK industry sustainably for the future.
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