Government advice on polluted sites shown up by FoE survey

One-third of local authorities in England and Wales have no information on contaminated land, and most of those that do obtained it from a single limited source, according to a survey by Friends of the Earth (FoE). The group says that the findings highlight the shortcomings of Government advice that people needing guidance on land contamination should ask their local authorities.

FoE's survey used a questionnaire which asked local authorities what information they hold on contaminated land, and was backed by a formal request under the Environmental Information Regulations 1992. Despite this, 63 councils failed to reply.

Of the remaining 339, 73 authorities (22%) failed to answer the questions posed. Another 116 (34%) said they had no information on contaminated land.

Of the 150 responding councils which do hold information, 85 (57%) had obtained it from just one source. This was mostly planning files or records of old waste disposal sites, which would give only partial information on potentially contaminated sites.

Another 41 authorities said they had information from more than one source. But only 24 have carried out or initiated surveys to identify contaminated sites.

Even when councils do hold information on contaminated sites it is not clear that it would be released to the public. One authority, Bedford, told FoE that "any land that is actually contaminated could be subject to legal proceedings and will therefore be excluded" from disclosure "on the basis of the confidentiality clause" in the 1992 regulations.

FoE says that the results make a mockery of the advice given by the Government in its citizen's guide to the environment. This says that "you can find out from your local authority if they have information about land which may be contaminated in your area."

The group says that the Government's decision in March to scrap its plans to introduce public registers of potentially contaminated land (ENDS Report 218, pp 25-27 ) has denied the public the information they need to make informed decisions in property transactions.

The Government is now rethinking its contaminated land policy, and an initial announcement of its conclusions may be made later this year. FoE is urging it to establish public registers of contaminated sites and establish a clean-up programme paid for by the polluters or, if they cannot be found or are unable to pay, by a levy on polluting industries.

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