Whenever building developments are announced, local community concern can, quite rightly, be most vocal if asbestos awareness is raised over a contaminated site where the deadly material was once used. Anxieties naturally run high in areas of former industrial plants or factories in north England and the Midlands, where thousands of exposed workers eventually suffered from asbestosis disease or lives cut short by fatal mesothelioma cancer.

The urgent need to build new housing is long overdue for positive action. While the development of greenfield space continues to be highly controversial and increasingly resisted, over 60 per cent of new houses are built on brownfield sites. However, the demand for residential and commercial property is now such a priority, the percentage is set to rise over the next decade. Currently, fewer than 220,000 houses are built each year, which is calculated to be not enough to meet the annual minimum of around 270,000 homes.

At the same time, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has also estimated that there could still be around four million commercial and private properties containing hidden asbestos materials, including asbestos-contaminated soil just beneath the ground surface. From the 1940s through to the end of the 1990s, a total of 5.3 million tonnes of asbestos was imported for use in industry, manufacturing, and especially building and construction.

Broken-up asbestos-containing materials can be left behind

When old factory buildings are demolished, broken-up asbestos-containing materials can be left behind and mixed in with the soil, rubble and debris. Lack of time, carelessness or inadequate asbestos training could sometimes mean that demolition workers would not dispose of the asbestos material correctly or worse, asbestos contaminated soil was used as top soil or land fill.

Currently, there are estimated to be more than 66,000 hectares of brownfield sites in England, of which, around 1 in 3 are situated in Greater London and the South East. In April 2017, Housing and planning minister Gavin Barwell announced that local authorities across England would now have to produce and maintain up-to-date registers, listing all brownfield sites available for housing. The aim of the registers is to highlight local derelict or underused building sites earmarked for development.

Following on from the government’s earlier plan for brownfield site registers, in his November Budget speech, Chancellor Phillip Hammond pledged to build 300,000 new homes with accelerated measures to “clean up” brownfield land for housing and extend permitted development to thousands of under-used buildings. Nevertheless, the history and circumstances of each brownfield site is different.

Natural local community concern may soon turn to alarm if local and agency authorities are not seen to properly consider whether the land is suitable to build on without carrying out detailed analysis for soil contamination. In a number of past cases, claims over waste materials such as asbestos found at a disused site, have been the cause of long disputes.

Asbestos found at former factory site earmarked for housing redevelopment

In one example, “hazardous material” claimed to be asbestos was found at the site of a former Hartlepool factory earmarked for housing redevelopment. Both the Environment Agency (EA) and the firm involved in clearing the site argue that there was no evidence to support the claim that the material was asbestos.

In north Devon, at the site of a former coal fired power station decommissioned in the mid-80s, local campaigners opposed a plan to build nearly 300 new homes on ground said to be heavily contaminated with around 600 tonnes of asbestos, which also threatened a nearby conservation area.

During the planning phase of the London 2012 Olympics, it was claimed that parkland at Leyton Marshes, London, where a basketball training facility was to be built, was contaminated with quantities of asbestos-containing materials mixed in with the soil and rubble from landfill dating back at least forty years. Asbestos has also been identified at a site earmarked for the development of a multi-million pound McDonald’s drive-through restaurant in Tonbridge, Kent.

Not all sites will be suitable for remediation

Prior to redevelopment, all brownfield sites need to be analysed and tested for hazardous materials to reduce identified risks and liabilities. If soil and water analysis is positive, the next step is remediation, and the removal of all known contaminants to levels considered safe for human health. Redevelopment can only take place after all environmental health risks have been assessed and removed. Not all sites will be suitable for remediation, particularly if the cost of remediation exceeds the value of the land after development.

An estimated 1.3 million people are exposed to asbestos every year in the UK, according to the HSE. Apart from local community residents living near development sites, many of the most vulnerable to exposure are known to be building contractors, tradesmen and ground clearance crews who work on building new housing on former asbestos-using sites.