Environmental Search

Environmental SearchDuring the conveyancing process, you will hear reference to an environmental search.  I just wanted to explain what this search does, when you should carry out it out, how much it costs and how long it takes.

When the Environmental Protection Act came into force in 1990, it introduced a new regime where landowners and occupiers became potentially liable to clean up contamination found in the ground under their properties.   Clean up and remediation costs are extremely costly and can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The basic principle is that the polluter pays but in many cases it is simply not possible to find the polluter where for example the contamination took place in the Victorian times.   So the authorities then look to the owner or occupier to pay for the remediation and clean up costs.  This could be several owners where the contamination spreads across a large area or the liability could fall on a single owner.

An environmental search

So because of this liability, a new type of search was developed which conveyancers could carry out to give some protection to property buyers and their lenders.

An environmental search is essentially a trawl through the historic maps of the area to look for clues as to the previous uses of the property being purchased.  As contamination can be carried by underwater water sources or through certain types of porous rock, the radius of the search is quite wide.   The search goes back as far as accurate mapping allows.   It will also analyse the existing uses of the land as to whether any of these uses could potentially cause contamination.   It also assesses high flood risk areas.

At the front of the search is a certificate which is given by a firm of Chartered Environmental Surveyors in which it states whether or not the property has “passed”

You also get a certificate from the chartered environmental surveyors in which they certify that based on the information contained in the report, that the property is not such that the value would be affected or that the property would be classified as “contaminated” within the meaning of the 1990 Act.  This is just what you need because you would need to be an expert in environmental contamination to interpret the contents of the average report.  So as a homebuyer and as a solicitor advising the homebuyer, you just need to look for the words “passed” on the certificate and you know you need look no further.

What happens if the report is a Fail?  Well, just because it fails doesn’t mean that the property is contaminated.    There are a number of recommended actions set out in the Report if the property “fails”.   These include contacting the local authority to find out if any measures have already been taken to deal with the contamination.  Local authorities often make it a condition of planning permissions for commercial development or residential development that the land must be cleaned up before development can commence.  In fact, this is the main way that local authorities are tackling their responsibilities imposed on them to clean up their boroughs or districts.  So it may be that measures have already been put in place to tackle the contamination or that the contamination has already been remediated.  These searches just give a historical snapshot of the land not what might have been done to the land recently.

So they cost about £49 for a residential search about £176 for a commercial search.  They take a few hours and the results are delivered electronically.

Since the cost of cleaning up contamination is so high, this search should be essential for all purchasers and indeed if there is bank borrowing being taken for the purchase, all lenders regard them as one of the essential searches all solicitors should carry out on any every transaction.

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Dominic Beeton, Solicitor
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