Contaminated land is an increasing problem, first exposed in 1986 when a house in Derbyshire was destroyed in an explosion caused by methane leaking from rubbish under the site.
The passage of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 has placed a duty on the Waste Regulation Authority to inspect contaminated land and, if necessary, order the owner to clean up the site. Similar powers have been granted to the National Rivers Authority under the Water Resources Act 1991.
Clean-up costs can be substantial. Rehousing 120 families on an old Royal Navy disposal site cost Portsmouth City Council about pounds 6m. In 1990, a House of Commons Select Committee report estimated there were 100,000 contaminated sites in the UK. Experience in other countries suggests that this is a gross underestimate.
The problem is not restricted to industrial sites. Richard Vidal, a solicitor with the National Farmers Union, comments: 'An increasing number of our members are encountering problems associated with contaminated land.'
The designation 'owner' under the EPA is open to wide interpretation. A lending institution could become liable if a borrower defaults on his loan and the institution takes possession. A landlord may also become liable when a tenant surrenders a lease.
The most common form of contamination is poisoning from toxic metals, such as lead, mercury and cadmium. The contamination risks are widespread. Lead poisoning can cause brain damage. Toxic waste can erode foundations and attack underground pipes. Health can also suffer if you inhale dust from stagnant matter or consume vegetables grown on contaminated land.
Normal conveyancing land searches will not show whether land is contaminated, although searches can be done at the National Coal Board to ascertain whether mining excavation was carried out on the site. However, help is at hand.
Mr Williams, a graduate of Reading University and an associate of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, first encountered the problem of contamination when developing the site of a Victorian abattoir.
He said: 'I could find out little information about the environmental risk to the land and its previous history of contamination. Given mounting legal liabilities facing owners of contaminated land, I felt there was a definite need for more information.'
Mr Williams established Past Use Land Searches at the beginning of the year in Milton Keynes, Bucks. The company offers clients a report on previous uses of a site and those surrounding it. Mr Williams warns that it will not establish whether land is contaminated.
The report will be compiled from a study of Ordnance Survey maps and information from such organisations as the Waste Regulatory Authority and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution. 'We will be looking for changes in use in the last 100 years. This may include its previous industrial use or any cases of landfill. Incidences of spill or accidents will also be of particular interest.'
Mr Williams added: 'If the client feels once he receives the report that he needs a full environmental audit, we will recommend a specialist to him. Alternatively, he may feel that the site's history is sufficiently precarious to preclude purchase.'
A structural engineer will usually confirm whether land is contaminated and to what degree - but at a price. Mr Williams said: 'This is a lengthy, costly and disruptive process. It is rarely practical or economical to test all samples for every possible contaminant. In addition, access to the site may be restricted or the position of a building may hinder excavation.'
Mr Williams has found there is a wide demand for his services, from organisations including lending institutions, insurers, developers, solicitors, surveyors householders and farmers.
Past Use Land Searches has already prepared reports for commercial and residential developers and a large retail chain.
Past Use Land Searches is at 2 Castle Road, Larendon, Olney, Buckinghamshire MK46 4JD. Tel 0234 241386.
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