Family to sue over landfill house: Heather Mills reports on a case that could help thousands of homeowners

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A FAMILY 'trapped' in a one-bedroom starter home - which they claim was rendered worthless when it was discovered it was built on a methane-exuding rubbish dump - have been given the go-ahead to sue for compensation.

Their case could have major implications for thousands of home owners living on or near the country's 1,000 polluted landfill sites.

Craig and Natalie Bufton have seen the estimated value of their property on a Barratt Home estate in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, shrink from pounds 47,500 in 1988 when they bought it, to pounds 17,500 - but say the reality is that no one wants to buy a house near a potentially hazardous site. The couple's two daughters aged two years and seven months - born after the home was bought - sleep in the built-in cupboard off their bedroom. They are now expecting a third child. Mr Bufton, who has been made redundant twice, is unable to search for work outside the area and has been unemployed since January.

Warwick District Council has refused to re-house them and Barratt has declined the couple's request to be considered for their part-exchange scheme.

''No one wants to help us,' Mrs Bufton said yesterday. 'Yet no one told us when we bought the house that it was built on a landfill site. It has become a nightmare. We are cooped up, unable to get any space from each other or from the children.'

Their house was on the market when an investigation by Warwick council in 1989 revealed the presence of high levels of methane - a volatile gas - in houses and grounds on the estate.

The Buftons claim that overnight it became unsaleable. 'No one wants to buy or even rent the place and anyway a bore hole is gushing gas about 30 yards away,' Mrs Bufton said.

The couple have been granted legal aid to pursue a claim for damages and Leigh, Day and Co, their lawyers, will be investigating who out of a succession of bodies involved in the development and sales on site - including Barratt and the district authority - may be liable.

Friends of the Earth estimate that thousands of others are in a similar situation, and Richard Meeran, the family lawyer, believes other cases will follow. Pollution inspectors have identified 1,000 landfill sites in need of control, but the Government has so far refused to identify or register them.

But yesterday a Barratt spokesman said that when the homes were built the problems of landfill gases had not been generally recognised.

'We have acted properly and responsibly throughout. Although we have been advised we have no legal liability, we have not walked away from the problem. We sympathise with the present predicament of residents, and have demonstrated our concern by engaging experts to try and assist the local authority in devising a cost-effective and practical solution, and they are optimistic that one will be found.'

Barratt said the Buftons' home was not in the 'risk' zone and the core area of gas generation was in a public open space.

'The basic problem at Kenilworth is not one of danger to occupier or risk to health but one of reduced saleability of the houses in the current market conditions,' he said. That is why they had declined a part-exchange transaction.

John Picking, chief executive of Warwick District Council, said: 'We have always strongly refuted liability.'