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Blighted
Monday March 20 2000
Reporter David Lomax
Producer Kiran Soni

The government's plans to build hundreds of thousands of new homes on brown field land could leave many homeowners living in "blighted" houses because of uncertainties over contamination. Panorama also shows that some of the country's biggest developers have started building on sites before local councils have agreed a strategy on surveying the land and deciding how to make it safe.

Outside the village of Weston near Runcorn in Cheshire there's an old chemical dump. For 50 years ICI dumped toxic waste into quarries there. Now the village of about 1000 people is under threat.
Ann and Roland Kingsbury
ICI which runs the plant has evacuated 22 families to nearby hotels because gas levels - of a substance known as HCBD which is leaking into nearby houses- are considered unsafe. Ann and Roland Kingsbury are among the families to be moved. They've lived in Weston for 14 years and are now worried for their family's health. Ann Kingsbury told Panorama
Will I always wonder for the rest of our lives every time we go downhill, is this something more serious? Have I only got six months to live ?

Ann Kingsbury

In March this year, John Prescott set a target of building 60% of all new homes over the next five years on brown field sites. The government estimates that there are 100,000 potentially contaminated sites across the country.

Scroll down for related links

New laws which come into effect in April will compel local authorities to draw up a register of contaminated sites, and an action plan on how to clean them up. But Panorama has discovered that there are already difficulties between local authorities and developers which the new laws may not resolve.

Panorama reveals how West Berkshire Council has described Barratt's as "irresponsible" for starting work on a potentially contaminated site before the authority was satisfied that the company had provided surveys and agreed remediation plans for the land.

Developments highlighted in the programme:

Thatcham, West Berks

Barratt's are building homes on a group of ex-industrial sites in Thatcham, West Berks called Saxon Court. The local council only gave Barratt's planning permission on condition that before starting work the company did surveys on the level of contamination if any and agreed remediation plans if the sites needed cleaning up.

However, Barratt's did not comply to the satisfaction of the council and started building, despite not having satisfied planning conditions. The council has now issued an enforcement notice on phase 3 and a stop notice on phase 4 of the development.

The council's Public Protection Officer John Parfitt said:

They actually started building properties there, or doing preparatory work such as driving piles and so on for foundation works, before we had received even the proposals for how they were going to find out what contamination was on site, let alone do the remediation works.The Environment Agency and ourselves met with Barratt's and with our colleagues to draw this to their attention as you would imagine and say, you know, what's going on. But I mean in one case we actually had houses up to roof level.

Schooners Reach, Greenhithe, South Thames/Kent

South Thames is going to see most of the new development in the south east promised by John Prescott, with thousands of homes being built on ex-industrial estates. Barratts has been building homes at Schooners Reach, which used to be a tank farm and ship repair yard.

John Murphy bought a Barratt's home there in 1997. When looking at plans for more Barratt homes, he saw a planning notice saying that the EA and Dartford Council had given the remediation work on the site their blessing. They had not done so and subsequently had the notices removed

John Murphy said he complained to the Environment Agency's contamination land officer; "Within an hour he was up here. And made Barratt's take the notice down. That notice was subsequently amended and deleted the reference to the Environment Agency and just left the Dartford Borough clearance in the narrative. I then telephoned the Chief of Planning in the Dartford Borough Council and he was amazed and shot down an hour later and had the second notice removed."

Last month Barratt's pleaded guilty in court to making a misleading statement. The company was fined 4,000 with 15,000 costs.

The council eventually gave formal planning permission but added a rider:

It should be noted that this represents no guarantee or assurance by the Borough Council with respect to the safety of the site, the responsibility of which rests with the developer.Quote Here

Dartford Borough Council

The Residents Association say they're satisfied that the land is not contaminated but sales of properties there have since fallen through and home-owners are worried that house values are falling.

Enfield lock

Fairview Homes are building 1,300 homes at Enfield Lock in north London on land which was once a Small Arms Factory, makers of the Sten and Bren guns. Following a survey of the site which found evidence of toxic chemicals including arsenic and Mercury, Fairview remediation strategy included putting down a 3 ft deep clay cap. However, the Environment Agency (EA), and environmental consultants have said that in their opinion the precautions were not robust enough.

Fairview Homes consultants' disagreed and the company carried on building. Enfield Council allowed the development to go ahead, even after further warnings from the EA. Residents have been told not to dig deeper than 3ft in their gardens without permission.

Vinni Bellini
Vinni Bellini was one of the first residents to move into Enfield Island Village. He liked what the brochures said about the ambience of the development but is now worried that he didn't ask enough questions about the background to the former small arms factory site.

Related links:
The Environment Agency

Centre for Waste and Pollution Research, University of Hull

Department of Environment Transport and the Regions

Enfield Council


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