Blight fears over plan for register of polluted land

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The Independent Online
LOCAL councils with large areas of derelict industrial land fear the renewal of inner cities could be jeopardised by government plans for a register of potentially contaminated sites.

They are worried that developers will avoid land listed on the registers because of possible clean-up costs, making it more difficult to attract firms back to vacant lots. Instead developers will choose 'greenfield' sites.

Chris Mallender, research coordinator for Rotherham Borough Council, South Yorkshire, which has hundreds of polluted acres abandoned by declining coal and steel industries, said: 'I think the Government is shooting itself in the foot.'

The Department of the Environment is spending record amounts - pounds 120m this year - on grants for cleaning up abandoned sites left polluted by heavy industry. Rotherham is one of the largest beneficiaries yet, said Mr Mallender yesterday, and listing its sites on a register could leave them blighted.

Thousands of homes and commercial premises built during the 1980s property boom on land once used by polluting industry could also be listed - and, therefore, become more difficult to sell. No one has any firm estimate of how many properties are involved.

The registers will be drawn up by councils and made public. They are a response to concern over the extent of contaminated land left by 200 years of industrialisation and the potential danger to human health, wildlife and water supplies. The Government was much criticised, especially by the Commons environment committee, for having no idea of how much land was polluted, how badly, and where it was.

But the registers have been controversial since they were made possible by the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The Government has twice delayed their implementation and drastically reduced their scope.

The registers will list land which may have been contaminated by toxic chemicals or metals because any one of a wide range of industries was known to have occupied the site. There are estimated to be 50,000 to 100,000 such sites in England and Wales. The Government rejected a full survey to find out if sites were actually rather than possibly contaminated because it would cost too much.

Last month David Maclean, the Environment Minister, said that only sites used by the most polluting industries would have to be registered initially - including those involved in the manufacture of asbestos, lead, coke, steel, scrap metal works, oil refiners and chemical plants.

He thereby narrowed down the number of sites involved by about 90 per cent.

Alan Cave, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors' contaminated land spokesman, welcomed the move but said the Government still did not accept that sites which had been cleaned should be taken off the register.

In Rotherham, Mr Mallender said there was nothing wrong in principle with registers but the Government had failed to co-ordinate policies and Whitehall had to develop extra incentives for cleaning up contaminated land and attracting developers.