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The merits of a dirty field…

After over 25 years in business, Nigel Huish, Managing Director and Simon Edwards, Regional Director, IDOM Merebrook, discuss how contaminated land in Britain poses the same compelling business opportunity today, as it did 25 years ago.

Over 25 years ago in 1998, Tony Blair’s Labour Government set a nationwide target aiming to ensure 60% of new housing development was built on brownfield sites.*

This was music to the ears of a small, specialist team of Derbyshire based environmental engineers that formed a consultancy Merebrook Projects the same year.

The new business which focused on contaminated land consultancy, serviced housing companies and provided remediation services to repurpose contaminated land sites to ensure they were fit for redevelopment.

The vision and objective for the fledgling business was simple, to draw upon their team’s specialist skills, to grow the business and secure a significant share of the contaminated land market in the UK.

Crossrail

The new government policy was undoubtedly helpful, but posed the question, “Is there a limit to the life of a business which helps to clean-up dirty land? Simple geography would suggest that supply would be exhaustible and opportunities would diminish.

However, the business model has proved sustainable, and with the current government refocus and ‘brownfield first initiative,’ contaminated land projects remain a principal work stream for the company.

Earlier this year Housing Secretary, Michael Gove, introduced the Brownfield first initiative stating that, “Every council in England will be required to prioritise brownfield developments, and instructed to be less bureaucratic and more flexible in applying policies that halt housebuilding on brownfield land.”

Nigel commented: “There are few inexhaustible resources in this world, however contaminated land is proving to be one of them. Government policy presents a similar opportunity for us today, as it did at the beginning of our careers 25 years ago – and the potential is set to grow.”

“The contaminated land market is experiencing a surge in opportunity, driven over the years by increasing environmental awareness, stringent regulations and advancements in remediation technologies. As government’s globally prioritise sustainability and materials management in construction, the demand for remediation of contaminated sites has never been greater.”

“Through policy, incentives and regulatory frameworks, policy makers are fostering a conducive environment for brownfield redevelopment -stimulating economic activity but also safeguarding public health and protecting valuable eco-systems.”

Simon added “Government contaminated land policy has never supported returning land to pre-industrial conditions but rather to make it suitable for its latest use. As uses change, land needs further review and sometimes additional remedial activity. This presents challenges for developers – but also opportunities.”

Dublin Airport - Skybridge

Following the initial spur of good fortune, in the late nineties Merebrook began to significantly grow its team of consultants, many of whom are still with the business today.

While contaminated land consultancy has always been a core service, the business has been dynamic over the years and reacted to industry opportunities, several of which have stemmed from new government regulations and policy.

For example, The Control of Asbestos Regulations in 2006, presented an opportunity for Merebrook to build a large surveying team that worked to help ensure clients were compliant with new laws and that developments were deemed safe.

And, when the profit went out of that market, the business was able to successfully pivot and repurpose its consultants’ expertise to surveying for asbestos in land, a very niche service which is still not offered by many consultancies today.

Simon commented, “The key to our business success has in some ways been about being fluid and dynamic, and reacting to the macroclimate of business and industry.”

In 2008 following a management buyout, the consultancy became part of the IDOM Group, which meant that the specialist skills of the core team were called upon to support on global projects where contaminated land was an issue.

Indeed, the team has recently worked on a project in Chile to support bioremediation for the sustainable development in Vina del Mar region. Before any development of the extensive site, it has been necessary to complete the recovery process of the 16 hectares of land which had previously been used for fuel storage.

On site consultants have drawn upon a variety of remediation techniques and have focused on groundwater pre-treatment, soil excavation, classification of excavated soils, bioremediation of soils, soil replacement, permanent monitoring and final verification, which when completed could lead to the site becoming the first certified sustainable neighbourhood in Chile.

Idom Riad Metrro

Nigel commented: “Being part of IDOM opened up significant opportunities for us, although we were a small, specialist consultancy as part of the global IDOM network our skills were deployed on projects that we would otherwise not have been involved in. The team was then able to work on big flagship projects including Heathrow T2, Dublin Airport, Crossrail, the Riyadh metro and a paper mill for SAICA in Manchester.”

Over the years IDOM Merebrook has delivered high profile projects from renewables and fusion energy, to rail, metro and architecture projects. However, the core skills have remained fundamental to the business, with some projects having remained active within the business since day one, including the landfill site at Furfield Quarry and the site at Barking Riverside – known as the biggest contaminant site in Europe.

According to Simon, as time marches on the business potential in contaminated land increases rather than decreases, and a brownfield site is often more valuable than a greenfield site.

He commented: “Many sites sit dormant for a long time, as the remediation challenges are often complex, however as technology advances an increasing number of solutions arise even for the worst and most polluted sites.”

“Over the years, IDOM Merebrook has repurposed over 60 gas works and many colliery sites – and as a team it is incredibly satisfying to change the fortunes of parcels of land that have been written off and left derelict.

It is heartening to be part of the development process which enhances and changes the face of our landscape by creating attractive new neighbourhoods for people to live and work.”