Dealing with asbestos

Author: Gillian Birkby

Forty or fifty years ago asbestos was treated just like any other product used in construction. It was an extremely useful component of a large range of materials, and when those materials had reached the end of their useful life they could be disposed of in the same way as timber or bricks.

This is what happened at an old engine shed in Salisbury. There was an inspection pit, used to gain access to the underside of the engines. When the building, including the asbestos roof sheeting, was demolished everything was dropped into the inspection pit, and then covered over with soil.

Many years later, when the site was being redeveloped, the existence of the asbestos in the ground was discovered unexpectedly, and Wiltshire Council has been obliged to incur considerable extra costs for its removal.

What can be done to reduce the risk of this kind of unwelcome discovery, with the resulting extra time and cost for the project? There have been several recent instances of unexpected asbestos contamination in the ground. It is one of the significant risk items to be considered in purchasing or developing land and CIRIA has now produced a useful guide on this subject ( then do a keyword search for “asbestos in soil and made ground”).

As a rule of thumb it costs about ten times more to deal with this kind of unexpected problem which arises part way through a project, than the cost of planning for it from the beginning and dealing with it as part of the project. So, preparation and advance investigation are key. There are several well-known sources of information about previous uses of land. In a recent case some crucial information about the ownership of underground pipes was also discovered in the local history section of the town’s museum, so this is worth considering if it is difficult to find information in other ways.

But what happens if, as with the engine sheds in Salisbury, there is an unexpected find of asbestos in the soil during the course of construction? The usual rule is that the owner of a building or land is responsible for the asbestos in it. There are no public funds available to clean up this kind of contamination in soil. Whenever property or land has been purchased, and there is a risk of asbestos being present, a management plan should therefore be developed for dealing with it safely.

On purchasing any property constructed prior to 2000 an asbestos survey or asbestos management report should be requested from the seller. This may allow the design and construction process to be arranged so as to leave the asbestos in place, if it is in good condition, or to arrange for its removal causing as little disruption as possible, e.g. as part of the strip out works.

Gillian Birkby, Head of Construction, Fladgate LLP (

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