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Defra to issue new guidelines for building on polluted land

Developers could find it easier to obtain permission to construct homes and schools on contaminated sites

Building on land contaminated by industrial pollution or even asbestos will be made easier after government regulations are published today, experts claim.

The environment department, Defra, is expected to publish fresh guidelines for building on contaminated land to make it easier for developers to get permission for putting up homes or schools on the sites.

But the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, the professional body for the industry, has said the new regulations would lead to fewer sites having to be treated before they are built on. That will result in “reducing costs, in particular for developers, but at the same time reducing the level of health protection offered … to users of the land,” says a briefing document from the institute.

The new rules would “water down” the current science-based risk assessments and rely on a new “qualitative” approach, despite Defra’s own consultation admitting “it is inherently difficult to prove causality and there are good science-based reasons to be concerned that some sites pose significant risks from long-term exposures,” it adds.

The institute estimates that as much as 300,000 hectares of land would be covered by the new rules – an area greater than the size of Greater London and Birmingham combined.

Mary Creagh, the shadow environment secretary, said: “I am horrified at these proposals which show, once again, how out-of-touch the Conservatives are on the environment. After the forests sell-off and planning fiascos, Ministers now want to make it easier for developers to build on contaminated land.

“Strong environmental protections are key to creating green jobs and healthy, sustainable homes yet the government seems hell bent on destroying them.The collapse in construction is caused by lack of bank lending, and companies hoarding cash and land as a buffer against economic uncertainty rather than these guidelines.”

Defra, however, denied the new rules would weaken protection of public health. It said: “We have made clear all along that our intention is to reduce the burden of regulation rather than the environmental outcomes they are designed to achieve. The current system for identifying and decontaminating brownfield sites is currently unclear and difficult to put into practice. We are therefore looking to simplify the guidance available – so we are protecting the environment, ensuring land is safe to be built on and removing unnecessary bureaucracy.”

The rules for building on contaminated land were introduced by the last Conservative government’s environment minister John Gummer, though not brought into effect in England until 2000.

Since then, nearly 800 sites in England and Wales have been identified as contaminated, including some with homes built on them and one which is now an infant school.

Defra took action after concern rose about how many sites were being left in limbo because experts said there were not clear guidelines for local authorities to decide if the pollution was harmful on serious enough scale.

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, CIEH, argues that what is needed is more detailed rulings by the Environment Agency on “how nasty the stuff is and how much of it people especially are likely to come into contact with”, especially the Soil Guideline Values which would state how much of a pollutant would pose “significant possibility of significant harm” and so trigger a site to be judged contaminated land.

Its briefing, which claims many local authorities and other professional bodies have also criticised the proposed guidelines, accuses the government of “legislating by the backdoor”, and urges MPs to stop them, adding: “it is important that MPs are not seduced by the label ‘Guidance’ into thinking that this is trivial and that its laying before Parliament is a mere formality, and allow it to be adopted without comment.”

The contaminated land guidelines were identified by Defra as part of last year’s Red Tape Challenge to all government departments to reduce unnecessary regulations. At that time, Defra said: “the guidance is overly complicated which means businesses and developers face expensive clean-ups that create a burden for the housing industry, put extra costs on homebuyers and fail to achieve the intended environmental benefit. We plan to simplify the guidance to clarify when remediation is needed and how to ensure land is decontaminated to a high standard.”Last month the Guardian reported that the cabinet office minister Oliver Letwin, usually a strong supporter of the environment, had proposed that nearly 300 environmental regulations be reduced to 50 pages. Defra and the Cabinet Office would not comment on the claims, but an Environment Agency spokesman said: “The meeting was about simplifying advice to business about environmental regulation and was positive.” © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds