Environmental health

Residential contaminated land

If you are buying or selling a property it is important to know if the land may be affected by potential contamination because of its historical uses.

Land may become contaminated when substances have found their way on or into the ground - often due to industrial disposal, leaks or spillages. These substances may still be present in the ground above background or acceptable levels.

Land formerly used by industries may now be used for other purposes which are more sensitive to the potential effects of contamination.

Contamination and 'contaminated land'

‘Contaminated land’ has a specific legal definition which relates to an ‘unacceptable risk’ of harm to Human Health or pollution of the environment. Soils may in fact contain levels of substances which do not pose a risk if it is inaccessible, immobile, or the exposure is insufficient to cause harm or pollution.

Guidance for homebuyers and sellers

Determination of contaminated land either at the property or in its vicinity may affect property value due to a perceived risk or blight.

Brownfield (formerly-used) land has historically been, and is still today, re-developed for other uses such as housing, playing fields or offices.  The council must ensure that any redeveloped land is suitable for these new uses and identify and investigate any other further sites that may be potentially contaminated, as set out in our Contaminated Land Inspection Strategy.

Each historical industrial land-use is allocated into a risk category (High, Medium or Low) and then given an associated hazard ranking. Investigation of these sites then follows a prioritised approach depending on what the land is currently used for and what surrounds it.

It is important to know if the property you are purchasing has previously been used for any former potentially contaminative uses, and therefore may be subjected to investigations by the council at some point in the future.

If we investigate land and determine it as contaminated then it will need cleaning up, at a cost borne by an appropriate person.

In the majority of cases this will be the original polluter of the land. However, if a developer bought land knowing it was polluted, and did not clean it up adequately, then they could be deemed as an appropriate person.  Current landowners may also, under certain circumstances, be found liable for clean up costs.

No. Any past industrial land use does not necessarily indicate that contamination will be present or that it will pose a risk to its occupants or the environment. The presence of contamination or not may just currently be an unknown.

In most cases, the risks from living on potentially contaminated land are likely to be low. Property value is affected from a ‘perceived’ risk rather than ‘actual’ effects to the health of occupiers or the environment.  There are particular levels of substances whereby it is safe to be exposed to. For health effects to take place you would usually need to have a regular, prolonged contact with the contamination, dusts or vapours produced by it.

When land is redeveloped, careful consideration is given to what its future occupants may potentially be exposed to, especially those most vulnerable, such as children. The land is then cleaned up to a suitable standard using a wide range of techniques, such as digging and removing contamination from site, or treating and containing it so that it is safe to remain in the ground. The council and in some cases, the Environment Agency, closely regulate this.

Conditions put on planning permissions will not be discharged until we are satisfied that all works have been carried out, and any potential risks have been addressed.

When a property is being purchased, a standard local authority search will tell you if the property or adjacent land has been determined as contaminated.

Solicitors may also request an additional commercial environmental search on your behalf. This is a screening assessment of potential liabilities and risks if purchasing potentially contaminated land. These rely on third party factual information, including some that has been provided for commercial reuse by the council. Commercial search providers are often limited in the scope of their interpretations and as a precaution may be conservative with their assessments.

If you are issued a referral certificate from a commercial search provider it does not mean that the land is contaminated or there may be a risk to your health or that the property is un-marketable. It means they may need more detailed information to assess the level of risk and certify potential liabilities.

The commercial search provider may request that you obtain additional information from the council for a more realistic assessment of any risks involved with buying a property. We can provide factual environmental information if you submit a request for environmental information. After this, if a commercial search provider thinks that the information does not address their concerns, they may advise you to purchase an environmental liability insurance policy or get further advice from a qualified environmental consultant to carry out further investigations.

In most cases, commercial search providers can certify against liabilities or risks for mortgage purposes. However, when this isn't possible a home buyer or seller can purchase appropriate environmental liability insurance. Or you can opt to seek further advice from an environmental consultant.

If a recently built property has been cleaned up with our involvement or if you have an environmental search certificate, these documents will help when buying or selling a property and getting a mortgage.

If we have not found any evidence of risk from harm from our own investigations, it is unlikely we would take any further action unless more information comes to light in the future.

How can I find out more?

If you are concerned that you might live on, own, use or be buying potentially contaminated land you can submit an environmental information request online.

If you are concerned that your health may have been affected due to contaminated land, speak to your GP in the first instance.

Report a contaminated land incident

Contact us to report any of the following contaminated land issues:

  • Records of processes, chemicals used, or pollution incidents occurring at former factories (anecdotal evidence, photographs).
  • Knowledge of materials buried on former factories or deposited in landfill sites.