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Interesting times for Scottish brownfield industry

Brexit uncertainty, a new planning framework and housing targets, the world looking in at COP in Glasgow, a boom in wind and solar, with plenty of old fossil fuel based sites to be cleaned up mean exciting times for the Scottish brownfield industry. Ian Grant reports.


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Plenty of positives emerged from the Brownfield Scotland Conference. Professor David Adams commissioner of the Scottish Land Commission chaired a session outlining the progress made in tackling the 11,000ha of vacant and derelict land sites. Changes to the planning system in NP4 – which is far more streamlined and fosters solutions to the climate crisis and biodiversity were outlined by Gordon Thomson of Lichfields. David Gemmell and Russell Old from AECOM described the challenges they overcame in planning the remediation of radioactive particles from Dalgety Bay and Hugh Barron of the BGS explained the opportunities for geothermal energy at the demonstration site in the Glasgow region. More about these later…


But the contentious issues raised at the Remsoc Conference, last October and the Sobra conference in December reared their heads again. WSP’s Alexander Lee who ran a round table on ‘Improving the quality of contaminated land reports to increase confidence in risk assessment and remediation reports’, posed some questions using an interactive app. Are we in danger of risking away contaminated sites? Seventy-seven per cent said yes. Are we at a point we don’t trust the risk assessment? Fifty-eight per cent agreed. The discussion turned to issues about quality and cleaning sites which shouldn’t be cleaned up and not cleaning up sites which should be.


So, do we need more guidance? Fifty per cent said no and 50% said yes. Mr Lee thought that we already have a lot, but it needs to be more focused. The discussion turned to reasons for the situation, with two predominant - costs and the resource bias of risk assessors, which is endemic in science and many other walks of life.


With regulatory retreat in last few years, can we trust the checking process in the consultancy industry to get it right? Sixty-three per cent said we can't. In October, 75% said no. If we can’t self-regulate, what about the NQMS? Sixty-four per cent said the NQMS should not be mandated in Scotland. Fifty three per cent at Sobra’s conference in England said it should be.


The question then arose - if the regulator is in retreat - do we pay for regulatory services and inspections? At Sobra, 60% said yes. In Edinburgh, 50% said yes, 25% were undecided and 25% said no. All the panel members recognised there was a problem. Issues aired included – lack of quality, the race to the bottom, mature market conditions and lack of resources.


The solutions were less clear cut. Better training, greater understanding of the models, lobbying government, maybe promoting NQMS. But perhaps the most important thing to emerge – that we recognise it is a big problem that we need to address.


More big problems were aired from the regulators’ side. Sarah Hamill, Contaminated Land Officer at West Dunbartonshire Council stressed the importance of verification – and some horror stories which arose where it was forgotten or not done properly.


Verification and Validation are often confused. Verification is the means by which the effectiveness of the technique in its individual application is demonstrated. Validation is the means by which the technique is shown to be sound and effective, in a generic sense.


Ms Hamill said verification has three purposes: it confirms what was done; confirms if it was done properly and confirms if it worked. If there is no verification, there is no evidence. What is supposed to happen in theory, under Planning conditions, there will be enforcement action if a verification report isn’t submitted and an Occupancy Certificate will not be issued prior to verification being approved.


In practice there are delayed submissions with sub-standard reporting, unrealistic expectations, political and financial pressures, lack of understanding with verification often seen as an inconvenience.


And to prove the case she presented a series of ‘horror stories’.


In 2004, a site was designated as Contaminated Land being a risk to the Groundwater. In 2007 – a planning application was submitted for new school. A Water Treatment Centre was put in place which has been in operation now for over 10 years. The Environmental Health Department rejected the verification report as the developer was reluctant to confirm what had been done. The final verification report was received seven years after the school opened.


Another case involves and office car park on former gas works. The Remediation Strategy included removal of cyanide impacted soils in landscaped area. A verification report was submitted one week prior to occupation. Cyanide Impacted soils had only been removed to formation level. And the area was capped with 300mm soil. Environmental Health (EH) rejected the verification report with resultant legal implications.


On a new care home, EH was Informed of additional issues identified during site visit – a verification report was submitted with no mention of additional findings including a hidden tank. The report was rejected. An updated report was issued but it was not suitable for intended use. Further extensive remedial works were required. A revised verification was submitted eight months later, and a vapour barrier had to be installed in building.


On a flatted development requiring gas measures, the Remediation Strategy detailed gas measures and verification checks. A verification report was submitted after occupation. The gas measures weren’t complete when verifier visited the site. EH rejected the report. The consultant was unable to provide evidence to verify the works and allocated points for membrane not achieved. The only evidence was for venting layer and the floor slab.


Finally, on a housing development on former school, the Site Investigation identified that a site wide 600mm cap was required. The remediation strategy detailed criteria for imported material. The verification report was submitted three days prior to occupation of the first houses. Site won material was used to cap site and not in accordance with Remediation Strategy. EH rejected the report and the occupation was delayed.


Ms Hamill said developers are looking at ways to reuse or import ‘unsuitable’ material on site so to avoid costs of disposing to landfill or digging out clean to ‘find a use’ for dirty. Sometimes there is unnecessary raising of site levels and landscape bunds.


Import and re-use permission must be agreed by the planning department. "On completion of the works and at a time and or phasing agreed by the Planning Authority, the developer shall submit a verification report containing details of the source of the material and appropriate test results to demonstrate its suitability for use."


Ms Hamill stressed that it is important for all parties to work together. Regulators are often perceived to be barrier and obstacle to development – sometimes blamed by the occupants. Communication, early planning and transparency are keys to overcoming the issues. And she warned that at any point in the process, local authorities could be questioned over their decision. More on the conference follows….

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