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40 years of contaminated Land - a reason to celebrate?

Planning By Kevin McGee, Associate Director, Geoenvironmental – 15 November 2016

Arch Leisure Matlock. Cundall provided Geotechnical, Civil and Structural designs for Matlock ARC, a leisure centre and swimming pool constructed on a historic municipal landfill in 2011 and winner of the Most Sustainable Remediation Project in the UK at the brownfield Briefing Awards in 2010.
Steel frame of Arch Leisure Matlock under construction


Kevin smiling in a white shirt and suit jacket

Kevin McGee

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40 years ago, Cundall’s Founding Partners, Geoffrey Cundall, Bernard Johnston, Michael Burch, Rick Carr and David Gandy shared a common vision; to create a leading multi-disciplinary engineering consultancy with great design, sound engineering and good science at its core.

Coincidentally in 1976, the ICRCL (Inter-Departmental Committee for the Redevelopment of Contaminated Land) was formed. One of the ICRCL’s first actions was to advise against the development of old landfills, and this advice was circulated to every UK Local Planning Authority. In the 40 years that have followed – has there been any material consideration in Planning that has evoked quite the passion, emotion and debate that Contaminated Land has? I would argue not.

In the subsequent 40 years, Cundall has grown into a global force, with more than 750 staff operating in 21 locations worldwide. In the same period, contaminated land legislation has been dragged kicking and screaming from the simple age of 'don’t build on a landfill' to a socio-economic science that demands diligence, good practice and robust defensible science. In the same 40 years the adoption of robust legislation and guidance has not only pushed the UK into tackling it’s industrial legacy and subsequent environmental impacts and confronting it’s rather unflattering title of ‘The Dirty Man of Europe’, but also empowered the contaminated land sector driving science and regulation forward, with the UK now being seen as a ‘safe haven’ for property investors from all over the world.

Peel back the surface however, and we see a sector dogged by some who wish to argue over the insignificant nuances rather than concentrating on the key objectives in the name of their own politics, and, a sector that has suffered reputational damage by unscrupulous practitioners starting a commercial ‘race to the bottom’ taking standards and quality down with them. Add to this mix Local Planning Authorities who due to financial pressures are struggling to regulate promptly and effectively, and we have a sector that needs help, reform, and enforceable standards that have the full agreement of both industry and government.

It would be almost a utopian vision to believe that the sector will resolve all its issues overnight. However, I believe there is enough drive and will in industry to start to find common ground, and once again ensure the sector operates on a well-regulated and level playing field with the diligence and good practice it requires to give developers and investors’ confidence in the system. I certainly hope that in 40 years’ time, contaminated land has evolved to no longer be Planning’s most hotly debated and agued topic!