Contaminated land

Contaminated land is defined in Section 78A(2) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. In order for land to be declared as contaminated by the local authority, there must be substances (contaminants/pollution) that are causing or could cause:

  • significant harm to people, property or protected species
  • significant pollution of surface waters (lakes and rivers) or groundwater
  • harm to people as a result of radioactivity

Some land in this country has been contaminated in the past by industries, such as:

  • gasworks 
  • tanneries 
  • chemical works 
  • landfill sites

These are often called brownfield sites. There are also areas with elevated levels of naturally occurring substances (eg arsenic) that can be classified as contaminated land.

The issue with brownfield sites

Brownfield sites can be a problem for two reasons:

  1. there may be harmful substances in, on or under the land
  2. water pollution might be caused by substances at the site

Brownfield sites don't generally cause problems unless they are redeveloped for a different, more sensitive use such as residential use.

Land is only declared as contaminated if: 

  • it contains a source of pollution (the source) and
  • someone or something could be affected by the pollutant (the receptor) and
  • the pollution can get to the receptor (the pathway)

Together, these three elements are known as the pollutant linkage.

Action required

If you own or occupy contaminated land, or you did in the past, you may be responsible for cleaning up the pollution.

Even if you've sold the land, you may still be responsible for cleaning up the pollution. Some contamination can be a hazard to current occupants or neighbours, and the law states that the problem must be addressed immediately after it's discovered.

Who pays

The law follows the polluter pays principle. The person or organisation that caused or permitted the contamination must pay to have it put right. If that person or organisation is unknown, the current owner of the land may become responsible. Owners and occupiers of domestic properties aren't usually liable for these costs.

Reuse of brownfield sites

Planning application approval for redevelopment of a brownfield site will only be granted on condition that the contamination is cleaned up to a standard that makes it suitable for the new use of the land.

You should obtain specialist advice from an environmental consultant or a specialist lawyer before you buy or sell potentially or actually contaminated land. When you buy land in Southwark, our land charges department will inform you if a site has been declared as 'contaminated land'.

You can also request that we carry out a search of records and report whether the site is/was contaminated, whether it was remediated and to what standard.

Make a land use enquiry

Public register-contaminated land remediation register

The Environmental Protection Act 1990 section 78 places a duty for the council to maintain a register and prescribed the information about contaminated land it should contain.

This register does not give a comprehensive list of contaminated land or potentially contaminated sites in the borough, but an entry into that register will occur when:

  • remediation notices served by that authority;
  • appeals against any such remediation notices and charging notices;
  • remediation statements or remediation declarations prepared and published under section 78H above;
  • the land is designated  a “special site";
  • other prescribed information relating to the registered sites 

View the register (docx, 78kb)

Our role with contaminated land

Since we're responsible for enforcing the 'contaminated land' legislation, we

  • publish the inspection strategy (pdf, 1.6mb), which explains how contaminated sites in Southwark are found (the strategy is kept under review)
  • carry out inspections of land that may be contaminated 
  • find out who is responsible for putting right the contamination, and discuss the problem with them 
  • formally declare land as being contaminated where there's a pollutant linkage
  • agree the necessary action to ensure the pollutant linkage is broken and ensure it's done properly
  • keep a public register of contaminated land that has been remediated, the action required to put the problem right and any legal action taken to sort it out

A contaminated site can be classified as a special site if it's affecting a groundwater aquifer or similar. In cases like this, and once the site has been formally declared as contaminated land, the Environment Agency may take over the regulation and management of a site from the council.

Useful links

Page last updated: 01 May 2018