Getting to the roots of urban decay
Public sector finance: Nature can help us to clean and reuse derelict land.
Wednesday 15 May 1996
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.
Compare with the Independent: See how much you could save by switching credit cards. Compare now
Simon Read: It's time for a clear line on soaring mobile phone charges
You asked for it - here's your praise of banks!
Simon Read: Here are some Budget changes George Osborne could make, but I don't hold out much hope in times of austerity
How to start your own internet business
Plymouth Energy Community's solar share scheme backed by council
- 1 Is your name now 'banned' in Saudi Arabia?
- 2 Best films on Netflix: 32 movies that will put an end to your scrolling
- 3 Istanbul protesters take 'Ellen selfie' from the back of a police van
- 4 Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370: Jet ‘hijacking’ began soon after take-off
- 5 Lady Gaga has struggled with eating disorders in the past, so it's indefensible that she's glamourising bulimia in her SXSW set
Katie Hopkins continues campaign to become Britain's most hated talking head with poorly timed Bob Crow tweet
No EU referendum under Labour: Ed Miliband to reveal that vote on membership is ‘unlikely’ in next Parliament if party wins power
Grace Dent: Who cares if she spells it Barraco Barner? Gemma Worrall is more employable than some bookish arts graduate
Europeans have ‘got whiter’ due to natural selection in past 5,000 years, scientists say
The rise of Ukip: Study warns Labour that Eurosceptic party's electoral base now 'more working class than any of the main parties'
Fracking is turning the US into a bigger oil producer than Saudi Arabia
iJobs Money & Business
£35000 - £43000 per annum + Bonus and Benefits: Harrington Starr: A global lea...
£50000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Linux Systems Administrator - UNI...
£32000 - £36000 per annum + generous benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: * TAX * ...
£37000 - £40000 per annum + £20000 benefits package: Pro-Recruitment Group: **...
Day In a Page
A one-bedroom, luxury apartment with private gym and concierge service in Moorgate
A four-bedroom house in Hermitage Gardens with three reception rooms and landscaped gardens
A seven-bedroom Grade II-listed property with a separate self-contained apartment
A five-bedroom Victorian house with three reception rooms and galleried landing, £695,000
A six-bedroom farmhouse with five acres of land in a former cloth-making village
A secluded seven-bedroom detached house with large private garden, £490,000
A three-bedroom cottage overlooking Sarratt village green with open fires and solid oak floors
A three-bedroom maisonette flat in a Grade I-listed, Georgian townhouse in a sought-after location
A one-bedroom apartment located within a private gated development, north of Turnham Green
Look forward to a brighter future at two-bedroom Sunny Cottages, ideal for Londoners looking to downsize
A three-bedroom red-brick cottage with outbuildings and pretty gardens, £200,000
This three-bedroom flat within a former textile factory spans the corner of the fourth floor and has a balcony
A charming four-bedroom Oxfordshire cottage with oak floors and chunky-beamed ceilings, £465,000
A beautiful one-bed flat in a sought-after portered block, with access to Norland Square communal gardens
A one-bedroom flat within a Sixties school conversion with high-spec design and open-plan kitchen, close to Lambeth North Tube, £435,000
A 17th century four-bedroom house, with open fireplaces, cellar and pool, £600,000
A three-bedroom, coach house with luxury open-plan living space and contemporary breakfast bar
A newly refurbished one-bedroom flat in the heart of Mayfair, close to Grosvenor Square
A charming four-bedroom house overlooking Burleigh Square Park, close to Thorpe Bay
A three-bedroom farmhouse with a large inglenook fireplace and exposed beams
A boutique mews house, set around a central courtyard, with three bedrooms and a private roof terrace
A four-bedroom farm-conversion with three bathrooms and two reception rooms
A two-bedroom detached house with ensuite bathrooms and a sun-drenched decked terrace, £750,000
A modern and spacious two-bedroom, penthouse flat with two bathrooms in a prestigious development
A beautifully renovated five-bedroom terrace with three reception rooms and a courtyard garden, £700,000
A four-bedroom period house which has been extended to provide almost 2,500sq ft of living space, £675,000
A pretty three-bedroom Georgian home with a 22ft drawing room and a master suite with a balcony, £525,000
A substanstial family home with five bedrooms and landscaped gardens in the much sought-after Branksome Park area
A well-presented three-bedroom house with front and rear gardens, close to White City station, £475,000
A handsome five-bedroom house in a sought-after location close to the city centre
A five-bedroom country home with valley views, equestrian stables and 27 acres of land, £725,000
A six-bedroom farm house with separate, detached cottages and 371 acres of land
A two-bedroom cottage with parquet floors, chunky beams and an open fireplace
A three-bedrrom flat with 2,733sq feet of living space, a beautiful private garden and 15 acres of communal grounds
A four-bedroom chalet bungalow with three bathrooms and a spacious garden, £525,000
A two-bedroom flat with an open plan kitchen and two balconies, close to Arsenal station
A Grade II-listed home with six bedrooms, secluded landscaped gardens and views across Hadley Green
A Grade II-listed mansion with two apartments and a cottage, near Gretna Green
A three-bedroom Grade II-listed mews house with vaulted ceilings and roof garden