A recent survey of local authorities reported that Warrington was (by a huge margin) the most contaminated town in the country. Should residents be concerned? I discover that Warrington has lessons for many towns and cities across the North West (and is not about to dissolve in industrial waste).
Recently North West Bylines received a press release from Airmatic, a Bury company specialising in “designing, manufacturing & installing high specification ductwork systems and ductwork for hazardous environments”. Based on freedom of information requests sent to 70 local authorities, it featured a league table of the most contaminated towns in the country which headlined the results with:
“Warrington is the town with the most contaminated land in the UK, with a staggering 1759 sites across 41,603,277 square meters [sic]”
Can this be right?
There are around 330 local authorities in the UK of which about half have statutory responsibility for contaminated land. The survey received responses from fewer than 50, so covers perhaps 30% of the country.
Second place in the table went to Sefton, on Merseyside, also in the North West and with a similar area. But it reported an area affected by contamination 40 times smaller (975,000 m2). This is a huge discrepancy that demands closer examination.
Those who know Warrington will be aware that it has a noble industrial legacy (known in particular for wire manufacture, brewing, tanning and chemicals). But in recent years, its position at the cross roads of the M6 and M62 motorways with good rail links to London and Scotland has seen a move to logistics and distribution and high tech manufacturing. The town is relatively prosperous and does not give an impression of being seriously polluted.
Potential v actual contamination
The legal definition of contamination is important to understand (the relevant legislation is Part 2A of the Environmental Protection Act 1990).
Contaminated land is “any land which appears to the local authority in whose area it is situated to be in such a condition, by reason of substances in, on or under the land, that –
- Significant harm is being caused or there is a significant possibility of such harm being caused; or
- Significant pollution of the water environment is being caused or there is a significant possibility of such pollution being caused.”
This requires a risk based approach: there must be (a) dangerous substances (b) people (or water courses) in the vicinity and (c) some mechanism by which the people or water courses are being exposed to the dangerous substance. The planning system is normally the trigger for the relevant local authority to make an assessment of the risk and determine if remedial work is required before new building can take place.
Potentially contaminated land is any area that has been used in the past for industrial purposes or landfill. It is identified from historical records and identification of a piece of land as potentially contaminated does not mean any actual survey or testing has been carried out, or that contamination is known to be present.
Note that prior to 1974, there was no legal requirement on anybody to keep records of waste disposal or to make good any polluted land when a facility was closed. There is no way to know what is present in historical sites without detailed survey and chemical analysis.
Local authorities will identify potentially contaminated land in order to facilitate dealing with future planning applications. It appears that Warrington Borough Council has been particularly diligent in identifying all the potentially contaminated land in its area and it is these figures that were reported to Airmatic.
Warrington: most contaminated or most knowledgeable?
Warrington Borough Council has published the data for potentially contaminated land and it can be viewed here on the council’s interactive mapping. The map shows that approximately 23% of the land area in Warrington is potentially contaminated because of previous use for industry or manufacturing. Of particular note, Fiddlers Ferry, a decommissioned coal fired power station and the huge Arpley landfill site (now closed) are both within the boundaries of Warrington council.
The Metropolitan Borough of Sefton does not publish the equivalent data, so it is not possible to verify whether its much smaller reported area is actually contaminated (using the Environmental Protection Act definition) rather than potentially contaminated. The difference in approach would explain why the figures are so much smaller.
Rather than being tagged as a super contaminated town, Warrington should perhaps be congratulated for trying to get ahead of possible consequences of its industrial legacy in order to enable future development of the town.
Contaminated land: the issues
Potential contamination of land reduces its value to developers, making it less attractive because of the costs of cleaning up. The costs are unquantifiable without detailed study. It is easier to choose to develop green field sites which do not have this risk. Warrington’s local plan has caused great controversy in the town, as it calls for development on 5% of existing green belt land.
Warrington is not unusual in the North West in having a large area of potentially contaminated land that may need remedial work before it can be repurposed. It has long been a region with heavy industry and the associated infrastructure.
Surveying and documenting former industrial sites for contamination is an additional burden to be borne when attempting to ‘level up’ the region. It is but one of the many detailed pieces of work that must be done by our cash starved local authorities.
The evidence is that Warrington is ahead of the game and other councils should aspire to the same level of data collection and transparency.