Getting to the roots of urban decay

Public sector finance: Nature can help us to clean and reuse derelict land.

Flower and vegetable planting is a central element of the protest taking place on derelict land in Wandsworth, south London. Campaigners, who this week hand on the occupied land to local residents, want the old river wharf to be used as a community resource, not as a supermarket.

The plants, along with microbes, may have a practical as well as a symbolic role to play in the transformation of derelict urban sites. They are likely to prove a cheap, efficient and safe means of ridding contaminated land of its pollutants.

The drawback, according to scientists and industrialists, is that the Government is not investing enough cash in the research, or imposing enough regulation on landowners, to ensure that Britain is at the leading edge of the developing industry. British research is instead being used in the United States for what could prove for them a useful export trade.

There is a pressing need to bring derelict land into productive use, but until now it has needed heavy investment to clear degraded top soil - producing dust, which is itself hazardous - and replace it with soil from the countryside. The contaminated earth is then dumped on a landfill site, scarring more rural areas. Failure to redevelop abandoned urban sites creates extra pressure to build on greenbelt land.

This process was a factor in persuading the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which reported in February, to argue that more must be done to end the contamination of land. The commission wants land to be better protected from pollution, recognising that the long-term damage to micro- organisms is not understood. Land, the commission says, is in need of comparable protection to water and air, and areas already contaminated should be recovered for beneficial use.

Scientists from around the world are this week looking at one means by which contaminated land could be cleaned. A workshop organised by the quango Horticulture Research International will show how land polluted by pesticides and herbicides can be cleaned in days by the use of bacteria.

While experiments have so far been successful in laboratory conditions, they have not yet been replicated where the microbes have to compete with other bacteria and external factors. But it is believed that eventually the technique will become common practice, with applications in old wood yards and some factories. The process also has exciting potential for cleaning water supplies and clearing up oil spills in seas and rivers.

But derelict sites are more often polluted by metals than by chemicals. Scientists believe they have an equally appropriate, and equally cheap, solution, using accumulator plants. The plants absorb the metals from the soil, allowing the metals to be harvested from the plants, allowing either safer disposal or re-use.

Professor Steve McGrath, senior principal scientist at the Integrated Approach to Crops Research at Rothamsted, Hertfordshire, is leading research into accumulator plants. "We are still at the research stage," he says. "We are seeking funding. It is not a final product. We are dealing with wild plants that have never been grown in a mono-culture. We are still looking for the money for the basic research to improve efficiency."

Rothamsted's researchers would like the work to progress faster, and believe it is hampered by a shortage of financial support. Their frustrations have been exacerbated by watching Americans use their research, to the point at which the US has become leader in the development of the technique.

A tougher regulatory system introduced when the Environment Act comes into force later this year, requiring landowners to take action to clean up contaminated land, should also boost research, says Professor McGrath. But the Environmental Industries Commission, which represents the wastes industry, says that even this is not enough. The EIC is particularly critical that the Landfill Tax, which will levy a charge on disposed wastes, will not apply on contaminated land being cleared, thereby missing an opportunity to give a major boost to research into remediation.

"Regulation has to be looked at in a positive light," says Adrian Wilkes, director of the EIC. "It drives mainstream industry to be more efficient - that has to be good for competitiveness. And it creates demand for our members' products, and that creates a home base for exports.

"The environment technology market is worth at least $250bn worldwide, which makes it larger than pharmaceuticals, and 94 per cent of that is in the rest of the world. But you can't get out there unless you export. That is true especially in land contamination and air pollution. With water pollution, that is not quite so true because of the laws brought in by the European Commission."

Mr Wilkes says that the Government has blocked moves by the EIC for a stricter regulatory regime on land contamination, arguing that there is no competent remediation industry in Britain. "The problem with that argument is that the industry will only develop once the regulations are there," says Mr Wilkes.

Independent Partners; Do you need financial advice on your investments, pension or insurance? Book a free consultation with an independent Financial Adviser at VouchedFor.co.uk

News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

    Ashdown Group: IT Manager / Development Manager - NW London - £58k + 15% bonus

    £50000 - £667000 per annum + excellent benefits : Ashdown Group: IT Manager / ...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant / Telemarketer - OTE £20,000

    £13000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Scotland's leading life insuran...

    Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manager - City, London

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manag...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own