Environmental searches, introduced in the 1990s, help potential homeowners identify possible problems before money and contracts are exchanged.

Use of the land hundreds of years ago can have a huge impact today. Unfortunately no one realises this more than the residents of Fontmell Close in St Albans.

On 1 October, residents of the suburban street had to evacuate their homes when a massive sinkhole measuring 66ft wide and 33ft deep

opened up in their gardens and driveways.

According to the Hertfordshire County Council, they are currently looking at determining other possible sinkhole sites near the area and engineers say the ground is ‘still moving’.

Stephen Larcombe, environmental and property lawyer at Labrums Solicitors, said: “Environmental searches can help prevent serious consequences, such as homes needing hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on them to clean up contaminated land or detect other issues.

“Environmental searches have gained importance in recent years. The Government has passed a large amount of legislation to deal with green issues.

“The searches throw up so much information, lawyers can sometimes struggle to interpret them.

“If a search throws up, for example, that a site used to be an old brickworks – which is the case in St Albans – it should sound the alarm that there’s a possibility there are voids in the ground where clay was extracted.

“In this country, there are lots of cases of voids below the ground and contamination caused by such things as coal, salt and tin mining, former brickworks and strata formation. The land and water can also be contaminated by previous users of the site.

“It’s a bit like russian roulette. you never know when there’s going to be a live bullet in the chamber.”

An environmental search will generate a large amount of data such as previous flooding, land contamination and former land uses.

This data is passed to the client and the client has the chance to react to it.

Stephen said: “Solicitors are not environmental engineers or consultants, but can help shine a light on possible uses and potential problems.

“For example, if a property had been built on a former chemical works, the likelihood of it having been contaminated is quite high.

“The problem with issues below ground is that sometimes nothing may happen for many many years.”

In the case of the sinkhole of St Albans, I suspect the environmental checks were not part of the legislation at the time the houses were actually built.

Stephen said: “You can imagine that if your house has a certain weight, leaning down on sub soil, and water may be flowing under the site, you have got a potentially disastrous set of circumstances.

“The message to solicitors and people looking to buy a property is never be complacent.

“Use the information to make a judgement over whether to proceed with the purchase. It could impact on your decision to buy depending on the data.

“Things that happen to the land hundreds of years ago can come back to bite you.”

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