What Are Environmental Searches For Conveyancing

What is an Environmental Search?

An environmental search is a desktop study of the land in question and surrounding land which aims to establish all of the past uses of the land. By doing this, the search provider can establish how likely it is that the land could have become contaminated in the past. For example, if a property is built on the site of an old chemical works then there is clearly a risk that it may have suffered contamination as a result and the search result may come back as "failed". This does not mean the land is definitely contaminated, only that there is a realistic possibility that it might be.

If on the other hand, the search provider's investigations reveal that the land has always been used for residential purposes or for grazing land, it should come back with the result "Passed", which means that in the searcher's opinion there is no realistic possibility of contamination as a result of past land use.

Where Do I Get One and What Will It Cost?

There are a number of companies out there that offer environmental searches. Groundsure is one of the major ones as is Jordans. They are generally ordered online and will probably cost around £60 for a residential property. Commercial sites or development sites will be more expensive. The results are generally returned electronically, within 24 hours.

If I Get a Clear Result, is the Land Definitely Not Contaminated?

The search is not physical survey so a clear result does not guarantee no contamination. The advantage of a clear result however is that it operates a warranty by the search provider that past uses of the land would not have led to contamination and it is a warranty that is backed by professional indemnity insurance so that if it transpires in future that the result was inaccurate, you will be insured against any subsequent loss.

What Can I Do if I Don't Get a Clear Result?

Where the past uses of the land suggest that it is likely the land may have suffered contamination at some point the search result will be returned "failed". If this happens then further investigations will be required. For a fee, the search provider will make these on your behalf, or you can make them directly. The first step would be to contact the local authority's environmental department to enquire whether they have any record of the land being contaminated. If this does not reveal anything, a copy of the planning permission for the development should be obtained. It may have been a condition of the planning permission that a soil survey be conducted. If so, the local authority or the developer should have a record of the results.

If a soil survey has been carried out then either it should have been clear or else the developer should have had the land "cleaned up" and obtained subsequent confirmation that the contamination was dealt with.

If none of these enquiries bear any fruit it may be necessary to instruct your own soil survey, though this is likely to cost several thousand pounds and the seller may object to it being done since should the land prove to be contaminated he will need to pay for the clean up.

Another alternative is to purchase indemnity insurance, which can usually be obtained via the search provider, and will cover you against any loss suffered should the land prove to be contaminated as a result of the former use which led to the "failed" search result.

What are the Risks of Buying Contaminated Land?

The Environmental Protection Act 1990 gives the local authority the power to order the owner of land that is deemed contaminated to arrange for land to be cleaned up, at his own expense. Depending on the nature and extent of the contamination the cost of the clean up could be several thousand pounds. The owner can be liable even if he was not the original polluter.

Where no search has been carried out it is unlikely that you will be able to sue the seller to recover your loss, unless you raised specific enquires and seller made a misstatement in response.

Illegal Dumping and Waste Disposal

The environmental search can only look at past recorded land uses to establish the level of risk. Naturally, as it is not a physical survey, it cannot comment on any unrecorded and/or illegal use, and the search provider cannot be liable if the land proves to be contaminated as a result of illegal activities. Any indemnity insurance policy purchased as a result of a failed search would also not extend to cover illegal contamination.

Other Information Provided By The Search

As well information on past land uses an environmental search will usually provide additional information, which is not taken into consideration in arriving at an opinion as to whether the land is contaminated. This will include information on whether it is in a flood risk area or whether it is at risk from subsidence. It may also advise on things like the proximity of power stations, mobile phone masts or power lines.

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