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Contaminated land ‘real danger’ to public health

Stuart Spear08/06/2016 - 13:50

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Brownfiled sites linked to illness
Brownfiled sites linked to illness

The Environmental Audit Committee is calling for contaminated land capital grant funding to be reinstated to address the ‘real danger’ to public health posed by contaminated land sites being left unidentified.

In its report Soil Health, published on 2 June, the MPs accuse Defra of failing to assess the impact of withdrawing council grants for the identification and remediation of contaminated land sites and of being ‘complacent’ about the consequences of the policy change. 

In 2009/10 contaminated land grants for local authorities peaked at £17.5m, falling to £2m in 2013/14. Funding was then cut to £0.5m in 2014 and is to end completely in March 2017. As a result many local authorities can no longer afford to investigate contaminated land.

‘We heard that it would be “reckless” for a local authority to investigate a site if there is no funding in place for remediation,’ says the report. ‘This presents a real danger that contaminated land sites are being left unidentified, with consequential public health impacts.’

The Environment Agency estimated that there were up to 325,000 sites in Great Britain affected by some degree of contamination covering an area of 300,000 hectares. Former factories, mines, steelworks refineries and landfills are the source of chemical contamination as well as heavy metals, tar, gasses, asbestos and radioactive substances.

A statistically significant link has been found between soil metal content and respiratory disease. Further research has revealed a link with self-reported poor health in areas with a high proportion of brownfield sites.

‘Contamination has the potential to be a real risk to our health and wellbeing,’ said CIEH principal policy officer Howard Price. ‘Government funding has been reduced over the last four years and this is severely impacting on local authorities’ ability to carry out their statutory duties to investigate and remediate contaminated land.’

The report takes issue with Defra minister Rory Stewart’s defence of the capital grants cut that they were never intended to be permanent but were an attempt to ‘pump-prime’ councils.

The report argues this does not square with correspondence received by the CIEH by the then parliamentary under secretary Lord de Mauley stating the cuts were ‘regrettable but necessary given current circumstances and departmental budget cuts’.

The report also dismisses Defra’s argument that councils could sustain land remediation through their revenue support grant funding. The MPs point to data from 2000 to 2013 showing that 81 per cent of remediation under part 2A was through capital grant funding, 17 per cent was from the polluter or current occupiers while less that 2 per cent was from local authority funding.

The report calls on Defra to reinstate £19.6m worth of funding in line with previous grants at 2016/17 prices. The funding will address the impact of cuts on regional inequality and public health.

The MPs also call on Defra to publish annual reports on the state of contaminated land in England and Wales from 2017/18.

Given the report’s level of criticism of Defra Mr Price questioned whether responsibility should now be given to another department.

‘This raises the question as to whether Defra is the right department to run contaminated land policy considering their recent record,’ said Mr Price. ‘While we will work with any government department which has responsibility for soil health perhaps someone else ought to be given a try.’  



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