Residents living near four gasworks redevelopment sites in London and Brighton have joined forces to demand an overhaul of regulations on the treatment of contaminated land.
The move follows a Guardian report on residents’ claims that toxic substances from a site in west London were damaging their health.
Calling itself Gasworks Communities United (GCU), the new alliance includes residents near former gasworks in Southall, Hornsey and Lea Bridge in north and east London, and in east Brighton. It is calling for remediation – or cleaning – of all contaminated land to be independently assessed to ensure toxic substances are not released into the air during excavation, among other environmental measures.
“It’s high time a national group insisted on a set of high standards, guidelines and health safeguards before any of the some 30 gasworks sites that developers have purchased in the south-east of England even think of putting in a planning application,” said Stephen White, from east Brighton. He added that he hoped the city’s Green party council would “listen carefully to the experience of residents in Southall”.
The alliance has formed as St William, a joint venture between the Berkeley Group and National Grid since 2014, prepares to develop 21 former gasworks sites across London and the south-east of England. All have been or will be remediated in accordance with requirements set out by the Environment Agency and local planning authority.
GCU says it expects more groups to join.
It comes after the Guardian reported on the 25-year regeneration of an 88-acre site in Southall, where Berkeley remediated the soil of hydrocarbons including benzene, cyanide and naphthalene in an open-air “soil hospital”. Residents are calling on the council to instigate independent monitoring of the air quality nearby.
“Our experience in Southall shows there must be independent assessment of remediation strategies, better scrutiny by the local council and more accountability to residents,” said Angela Fonso, a GCU member and coordinator of the Southall campaign group, which claims that since 2016 a “petrol-like” odour from the site has harmed residents’ health.
The alliance is also calling for detailed health research on the local population before any work starts – to mitigate the risks – as recommended by a study on the health impact of the Southall redevelopment on the community.
It wants the techniques that National Grid will use to remediate soil around the blue gas-holder that was once a Southall landmark to become the industry standard. “National Grid told us that after seeing video testimonies from residents they will erect enclosures and air-filtering systems and use technologies never before used in the UK. This should set a precedent for gasworks sites in other areas,” Fonso said.
After watching the Guardian’s film about the Southall site, residents near gasworks sites in Hornsey and Bow got in touch to complain of symptoms similar to those reported in Southall.
Sharon Dolan, whose home backs on to the Hornsey site, said: “A distinct stench has been plaguing my home and garden. It makes me nauseous and I am convinced my headaches and frequent skin rashes are attributed to the effects of the development.”
There was still a gap in understanding about the risks of building on brownfield sites, said Dr Ian Mudway, a lecturer at Imperial College and member of the Environmental Research Group. “When we are considering building new housing, particularly when it is targeted at vulnerable communities, we need to adopt the precautionary principle. Public health is guided by the precautionary principle but this does not always apply to planning.
“What really matters is the individual personal exposure [to contaminants] but the technologies that allow us to measure that exposure are still quite new,” he said.
Siân Berry, the co-leader of the Green party and a London mayoral candidate, said the rush to build on brownfield sites exposed dangerous cracks in the system. “Many brownfield sites are being redeveloped while the enforcement of good practice by councils is still really poor.”
Berry added: “What we really need is for the mayor and boroughs in London to come together and agree standards on issues like air quality monitoring, noise pollution and transparency at the original planning stage. This must not be left until later. This would put residents near these sites in a strong position to defend their rights.”
The Berkeley Group declined to comment on the gasworks alliance.