Anyone buying a property (or indeed vacant land) should be aware of the problems which can arise with contaminated land. Property can be contaminated by many substances, for example asbestos, arsenic or methane gas produced by buried waste to name only a few.
Property owners should be aware that their land may in the past have been used for purposes which may have contaminated it, especially these days when old industrial land is frequently re-used for other purposes.
Local authorities are under a duty to take steps to identify contaminated land. If land is found to be contaminated the local authority is under a legal duty to decide whether action should be taken to remove the contamination.
If a clean-up is necessary, the Local Authority will serve notice (called a “remediation notice”) requiring reasonable steps to be taken to clean up the land.
Cleaning up contaminated land
The starting point is “polluter pays” however it will not be possible to identify the actual polluter due to passing of time and it is not unusual for a remediation notice to be issued against the present owner or occupier. Thus a home owner might well find himself liable to clean up land even though he did not contaminate it and did not know it was contaminated when he bought it. If a person responsible for complying with a notice fails to do so, the local authority can carry out the work itself and to recover the cost of the work from that person.
You can get a simple environmental report free for any post code area by visiting www.homecheck.co.uk but it is generally worthwhile investigating further on a local basis.
Commonwealth countries legal position on contaminated land
www.aclca.org.au is a helpful site on the Australian legal position on contaminated land. Other sources can be sparse on information.
Back to the British position
Contaminated land is a major issue in large British cities. An example of a recent case involving Birmingham can be found at http://www.empublishing.org.uk/clb/backheads.htm.
London in particular has large areas of land which may have had a potentially contamination issue historically, such as in the Docklands area. Save for obtaining a contaminated land legal indemnity policy, it can be difficult to obtain useful local information about the prevalence of contaminated areas in an individual London Borough.
Investigation is the key
In summary, whilst legal insurance can be obtained but it is always best to investigate since the legal implications of buying contaminated land can be very severe.