Our housing correspondent, BARRATT HOLMES, reports on how a notorious invasive plant Japanese knotweed could render flats in a Brick by Brick development unmortgageable
Colm Lacey, the Croydon employee who styles himself as “CEO” of Brick by Brick, has confirmed that the council’s housing developer will go ahead with a scheme in South Croydon, despite the site being infested with Japanese knotweed, an invasive plant which undermines the foundations of buildings.
Not for the first time, the council’s planners and Brick by Brick are accused of covering-up serious problems with one of their development sites.
By building on the council-owned site at Heathfield Gardens, Brick by Brick could find itself in multiple breaches of environmental legislation, and the council has been warned that it will be building properties on which it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to find a bank or building society prepared to provide a mortgage.
The planning permission for Heathfield Gardens was already controversial, after the council committee – chaired by architect-councillor Paul Scott – pushed it through on the nod despite the plans for the scheme managing to omit an entire storey from the drawings submitted with the application.
Now, James Sheridan, a Fellow of the Royal institute of Chartered Surveyors and the owner of the property next to the development site, has condemned the council’s planning department for failing to include in its report full details of an environmental survey on the site, and how it is infestated with Japanese knotweed – sometimes known as “the Godzilla weed”.
Japanese knotweed causes problems for property owners through its ability to spread deep and wide through its near-indestructible root system, which can go 10-feet deep, under-mining the foundations of buildings.
In the summer months, the plant is capable of growing up to 4in a day. According to recently published legal advice, “This has made Japanese knotweed one of the most invasive species in the UK and very hard to eradicate in its entirety. Even if one small section of the plant is left in the soil, Japanese knotweed is capable of regenerating and re-establishing itself.
“Japanese knotweed also causes problems through the ability of its roots to grow through the foundations of buildings, as well as concrete and walls – thus potentially causing significant damage. Japanese knotweed can be a very expensive plant to remove completely.
“In order to eradicate the plant, either all of the above-ground sections of the infestation must be treated with herbicides repeatedly for several years or, alternatively, the entire root system must be dug out of the ground and disposed of safely. Both systems of eradication can be costly procedure and could total hundreds of thousands of pounds if the infestation is particularly large and the entire root system needs to be removed.
“The presence of Japanese knotweed on land (or even neighbouring land) can have a serious and detrimental effect on the value, marketability and insurability of the land concerned.”
Many lenders – buildings societies and banks – are reluctant to provide finance for the purchase of a property affected by Japanese knotweed. “If a lender is willing to lend on property affected by Japanese knotweed, it is likely to insist on a programme of eradication being put in place as a condition of its lending, with the works covered by a ten-year insurance backed guarantee,” solicitor Verity Gawthorp states in a recent article on the blight of Japanese knotweed.
The Council of Mortgage Lenders (now known as UK Finance) in their guidance on Japanese knotweed, are clear about the consequences of trying to seek finance to buy a property affected by the plant: “Until the eradication is complete and the property certified clear of the weed, there may be an effect on marketability and value (and hence on lending conditions, or the lender’s willingness to lend).” Eradication of Japanese knotweed can take several years.
Yet Lacey’s Brick by Brick has plans to build two blocks, comprising 20 homes, on the knotweed-infested land at Heathfield Gardens.
Sheridan, who owns the listed 18th Century Boswell Cottage on South End which will be overlooked by the flats, has warned Brick by Brick of the problems around the site. These also include the expensive removal of an electricity sub-station.
Attempts by the council to control the Japanese knotweed at Heathfield Gardens with weedkiller have failed – managing only to damage and kill garden plants on Sheridan’s property.
Sheridan has filed a formal complaint to Croydon Council over its use of a misleading environmental report in the planning process, which under-stated the presence and significance of knotweed to the point of covering it up from the planning committee.
The complaint echoes the experience of residents in Purley Oaks, who were angry when Brick by Brick’s contractors demolished a set of old, asbestos-ridden garages at Montpelier Road and Kingsdown Avenue without adequate protections against the spread of the potentially deadly dust. A (council-commissioned) environmental report had stated there was no issue with asbestos on the site.
Sheridan feels that the council’s planning chief, Pete Smith, responsible for the report submitted to the planning committee, has fobbed off his concerns.
“Due to the provision of wilfully misleading information by Brick by Brick and the negligent oversight of the application by the planning department, the planning consent should be revoked,” he told Inside Croydon.
In his formal complaint to the council about the Heathfield Road site, Sheridan writes, “My complaint dealt with the unquestioning use of a deliberately misleading professional report – The Arcadis December 2016 Ecological Assessment. The use of this report meant that the planning department completely missed the fundamental economic fact that eight of the proposed 20 units would be unmortgageable due to JK [Japanese knotweed] pollution and the detailed analysis describing all 20 units being for open market sale was unachievable – unless the site of Block B should be remediated at enormous cost.
“No such analysis of the cost implications of JK pollution was produced by the planning department.
“By accepting unquestioningly the misleading Arcadis report which showed minimal JK penetration, the planning department was negligent. A simple enquiry of the housing department would have revealed that this land was well-known as suffering from comprehensive JK contamination.”
Sheridan says that when contractors visited the site to spray the weeds in June, one of the contractors claimed that it is the worst-affected by Japanese knotweed of around 100 locations he was hired to treat.
“The presence of JK on land renders it unmortgageable,” Sheridan said. “Thus eight of the 20 proposed units cannot be sold unless all of the contaminated soil is removed to a contaminated land facility, at enormous cost. This cost burden inevitably renders the development unviable and the detailed justification for using Heathfield Gardens as a ‘donor site’ for profitable open market sales disappears.
“The planning officer’s committee report was based on an ill-informed fallacy.”
As Brick by Brick struggles to balance its books and meet its target of providing 50 per cent “affordable” homes among the 1,000 units it has so far been granted permission for, some sites have been earmarked for private sale, to generate the revenue to pay for other schemes. Heathfield Gardens – nicely situated close to railway stations and the town centre – is one of Brick by Brick’s supposedly lucrative money-spinners.
“Because Brick by Brick was under pressure to start new developments, they deliberately concealed the JK problem when discussing the viability of the project with the planning department,” Sheridan said.
“That department did not enquire into or question the information provided by Brick by Brick relating to JK or the ‘confidential’ financial analysis which classified Heathfield Gardens as a donor site.”
A landowner’s negligence over Japanese knotweed, and its impact on neighbouring land and property, can see them subject to prosecution under a range of legislation, with imprisonment or hefty fines possible if found guilty. Japanese knotweed is covered by the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, the Infrastructure Act, the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and the Environmental Protection Act 1990. There’s even a section under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, though one weakness of much of this legislation is that for any prosecution to take place, it is the local authority – in this case Croydon Council – that needs to instigate it.
There seems little chance that Croydon Council will be issuing itself with a warning notice over its failure to control Japanese knotweed on its property at Heathfield Gardens any time soon.
Instead, Lacey, the council director of development while also being the CEO of a development company, is pushing ahead with plans to build on the infested site.
On Friday, from his desk in Fisher’s Folly, Lacey wrote: “We are aware of the presence of Japanese knotweed at this site and submitted a full ecological assessment with our planning application (ref 16/06514/FUL) which is available on the planning portal. It remains a viable site.
“Our main contractor for this development will be responsible for developing an action plan for appropriately treating the Japanese knotweed in order for construction to begin. Any remediation works and ongoing management plan will need to sufficient to satisfy insurers and lenders.”
Let’s just hope that Lacey and the council make sure that any prospective buyers for the homes that Brick by Brick build there will be fully informed of the status of the site and its history of contamination with the Godzilla weed.
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