• Rob Allen

Brownfield Site Acquisition: Six Ways to Reduce Your Liability

Updated: Feb 23, 2018

At Sequoia Environmental, we are regularly contacted by developers, looking to acquire brownfield sites. Cleaning up pollution can be a costly process so naturally, one should look to mitigate these risks wherever possible. In this article, we consider some of the main ways that our clients can reduce their liability when acquiring new land or property for development.

1) Recognise that risks from contamination might not be obvious

Clearly, if the site under offer is a chemical factory or petrol filling station, then consideration of the risks from contamination should factor highly in the due diligence process. However, the historic use of the site should also be considered. Vacant or undeveloped sites can often be affected by pollutants, which may have been released as a result of a former industry or process, leaving the current owner with the liability.

2) Start with a property search

Basic property searches, such as Landmark Envirosearch can give an indication as to whether a property is likely to be classified as ‘Contaminated Land’ under Part 2A of the Environmental Protection Act (1990). However, just because the site has not been determined as ‘Contaminated Land’, does not guarantee that it will be suitable for use within a planning context. Upgrading to a property search that includes a detailed set of historic maps can give some additional insight into the history of a property. For example, the maps below show an area that was formerly used as a gas works, before later being redeveloped for residential use.

3) Speak to your local planning authority

In accordance with Part 2A of the Environmental Protection Act and the Contaminated Land Regulations (2000), all local authorities are required to maintain a public register of contaminated land within their area. The Contaminated Land Officer will be able to determine if a property features on this list, or if it has already been determined as ‘Contaminated Land’.

4) Don't ignore the risks to existing development

Prior to the early 1990s, legislation for brownfield site assessment was much less comprehensive than it is today. Particularly in the post-war period, a large number of sites were redeveloped for residential use with little attention paid to land quality. If a property has not changed hands for a number of years, the existing owner may be unaware of any historical issues, which could be flagged during conveyancing or following submission of a new planning application.

5) Consider commissioning a Phase 1 Environmental Desk Study

If concerns as to the history of a property remain, then it might be useful to commission a Phase 1 Environmental Desk Study. This exercise will consider any potential sources of contamination in the context of the site’s proposed end-use and includes a risk assessment to determine if a legitimate risk to future users or the surrounding environment could exist. A Desk Study is a common planning requirement for proposed residential redevelopment, so it can often save time by completing this work at the pre-application stage. Find out more about the Desk Study process here.

6) Undertake site investigation if necessary

Even after the most thorough due diligence, the only comprehensive way to establish if contamination exists at a site is to complete some physical investigation. This work can take many forms however, it doesn’t necessarily have to involve the use of expensive plant and equipment. Often, just collection of a few shallow samples by hand can provide a useful diagnosis into the condition of an area. The vendor may also be willing to cover the cost of such work, especially if it can serve to expedite the sale.

Although serious issues from contamination are rare, comprehensive due diligence prior to site acquisition can prevent serious headaches at the development stage. Sequoia Environmental specialise in brownfield site assessment and Phase 1 Environmental Desk Studies for planning. If you have any issues regarding contamination during the site acquisition process feel free to contact us at