Objection from a Concerned Resident

Objection to Brighton Gasworks development BH/2021/04167


Brighton Gasworks operated as a gas producing plant from 1818 to about 1888. Gasworks were filthy places that produced coal, coke, tar and all manner of substances and compounds used in industry, many of them toxic. The soil was used to clean the gas and then buried, spreading pollution across sites.  When gasworks closed most of the buildings and gas tanks were demolished, and the rubble, retorts, broken pipes, smashed up tanks and residues of chemicals, including ferrocyanide, were buried in the ground and capped. The substances found in gasworks sites include benzene, toluene, xylene, arsenic, cyanide, asbestos and naphthalene: many of these are known to be carcinogenic or to cause other terminal diseases. As most sites closed no maps were compiled to show what was buried where. Most sites retained tanks to house natural gas which became redundant when underground pipes were installed nationally.

In Brighton people who bought homes near the gasworks during the 1980’s and 90’s were told that the land would never be built upon as it was so toxic it was best left alone. The site was never listed in Brighton and Hove’s list of industrial sites: neither was it listed as contaminated as that would have legally required immediate remediation, which was deemed impossible.  However in 2003 the toxic liquids concentrated in and under tanks 1 and 3 on the south west of the site had to be drained because they were contaminating the aquifer. The applicants state that this was a voluntary exercise but their remediation partner AtkinsRéalis confirm that it was a statutory land remediation programme. The buried tanks were broken up and one was reburied. Contamination is known to remain underneath and near to this. People today are still aware of black viscous pools appearing near the Marina occasionally. Nevertheless after this work the Council considered the southern part of the site to be suitable for a development of firstly 50, then 50+, then 85, then 85+ homes, but stated that the northern area remained contaminated and could only be used for semi-industrial activities.

Since 2003 the site has played a role useful to the people of the city as it houses a bus company, a garage, parking for the hospital development and parking in general, and a storage company used by small businesses for storing materials and tools. There is no other other site like this in the city and its loss would have major effects on vital but little-valued services such as public transport, and car and building maintenance.

When Hove Gasworks (which was built in 1825 and closed around the same time as the Brighton site) was developed in the 1980’s the works had to be stopped during school hours as toxic gases getting into St Andrew’s School were making staff and children ill. In view of the site’s history the Council would only allow a supermarket with no basement to be built, with the rest of the site used for parking.

In 2010 Ealing Council refused Berkeley Group’s application to develop the Southall Gasworks on several grounds including their wish to prevent contaminated soil being driven through Hillingdon. Boris Johnson, then London Mayor, allowed the application on appeal. Soil excavated from the Gasworks remained in a `soil hospital’ - a heap of contaminated/treated soil - instead of being driven off site, and residents have long complained about the effects on the health of those living near this.

In 2018 Brighton and Hove Council refused permission on an application by SGN to demolish the remaining gas tanks because of the environmental effects.

The 2021 application by St William Homes/Berkeley Group

AGHAST (Action on Gasworks Housing Affordability, Safety and Transparency) has campaigned against this application on various issues with a focus on that of contamination: of the dangers inherent in disturbing toxins long buried in the ground and releasing them into the air. These are ‘forever chemicals’ - they do not break down or naturally disappear and remain as toxic as they were before.

Air pollution is now recognised as having major impacts on the environment, climate and human health, particularly that of children, the elderly and those with health issues, as well some minority ethnic populations who lack a blood enzyme to protect them from the adverse effects of inhaling toxic air. There are also damaging effects on brain development in children and on protection from Alzheimer’s disease in older people. The first death certificate citing air pollution from traffic as one cause of a child’s death was issued in 2021. Pollution from the particulates in petrol and diesel is similar to some of the polluting material buried on gasworks sites.

The 2021 Scoping Report said that dust from excavations would travel in a 500 metre radius from the site.  Gases will travel as far as the wind will take them.

The 2021 application did not include submissions about the remediation strategy, an omission pointed out by AGHAST amongst other objectors. It also did not include a report on the implications for human health. These omissions were surprising, and cast doubt on the competence, comprehensiveness and veracity of the application.

Leap Environmental made some criticism of the methods of soil testing and the lack of commentary on naphthalene exceedances in the 2021 ES Chapter 13 Ground Conditions.

They say `We are in broad agreement with the Stage 1 Land Contamination Risk Assessment and Stage 2 Land Contamination Potential Effects presented as Tables 13.13 and 13.14 respectively (now referenced as Tables 13.15 and 16 in this revised document). One exception is the assessment of a negligible impact to offsite receptors with respect to gases and vapours. Even with effective mitigation measures, it is considered somewhat inevitable on a site of this nature that some odours will be generated during the enabling and early construction phases. Whilst the mitigation measures should ensure that there are no unacceptable health risks to offsite receptors, (humans) this still may not prevent complaints to the LPA from members of the public which will require action, noting in particular the elevated vapours that have been identified in the investigations to date. A strict regime of monitoring with a contingency plan for escalation and mitigation is suggested as a minimum using thresholds that are protective of human health. It is also suggested that this regime incorporates other environmental nuisance such as (but not limited to) dust, noise and vibration as part of a detailed Construction Environmental Monitoring and Management Plan (CEMP)’.

Pressed by Leap Environmental the applicants concede that `sampling wells installed into gas holder 6 recorded elevated concentrations of methane ‘. Leap asked for a vapour risk assessment in relation to people living nearby. The applicants offered to produce an Odour Strategy and say `The detailed odour strategy will also include the approach to managing the risk of impacts from possible emissions arising from remediation and enabling works at the Site, including during the decommissioning of the two water filled gasholders 5 and 7 applying an “Avoid, Reduce, Mitigate” hierarchy of measures’.

The contaminants

The 2021 objections included a report by air pollution expert Professor Roy Harrison, who had measured high levels of naphthalene in the air at Southall, evidenced by the `tarry smell’ or `petrol-like smell’ complained of by residents.  The Health and Safety Executive called for an immediate reduction in these levels, as reported by the Guardian. (5 May 2019)

The coal burning and coke making processes active on gasworks sites resulted in tars that were very rich in benzene and naphthalene. Other toxins produced from gas manufacture include methane, one of the greenhouse gases, as well as hydrogen sulphide and hydrogen cyanide.

Unlike other toxic contaminants such as methane and asbestos which do not have particular odours, naphthalene is smelled very strongly when released into the air.  It was used in mothballs, which were banned in 2008 by the EU due to their harmful health effects. The website concerning mothballs says `naphthalene is a banned, carcinogenic substance. Ingestion or inhalation of the chemical can cause irreversible damage to internal organs’…..`Breathing fumes containing naphthalene, drinking solutions or swallowing solid naphthalene can cause nausea, vomiting, pain in the abdomen, diarrhoea, confusion, sweating, fever, fast heart rate, rapid breathing and may lead to convulsions, coma and possibly death.  Exposure of the eyes to naphthalene may result in irritation and damage to the cornea and may lead to the formation of cataracts.  People with a hereditary deficiency of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) are particularly susceptible to naphthalene exposure.  Children are more sensitive to the effects of naphthalene than adults.’ From


The main effect of long-term exposure (a year or more) to benzene is on the blood and bone marrow.  It can cause anaemia, acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) and myelodysplastic syndrome cancers, in which immature blood cells in the bone marrow do not mature or become healthy blood cells.  It is associated with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Methane is at too high a level for safe exposure when mixed naturally with hydrogen sulphide, which then has a `rotten egg’ smell.  Methane on its own can reduce the amount of oxygen breathed from the air, resulting in mood changes, slurred speech, vision problems, memory loss, nausea, vomiting, facial flushing and headache. In severe cases, there may be changes in breathing and heart rate, balance problems, numbness, and unconsciousness.

The 2023 revised application

Having seen criticism and opposition to their plans, the developers have revised the scheme in various ways and emphasise what they say are low levels of contamination on this site shown by soil testing. They have submitted two new documents at the request of Brighton and Hove Council’s consultant Leap Environmental, one on Air Quality and Odour Management and the other on Remediation Options Appraisal and Strategy, Final Report both written by AtkinsRéalis.

It is worth saying here that although Leap Environmental are acting as BHCC’s consultants working on the assessment of this application they also work alongside Berkeley Group on other sites.  According to Professor Harrison it is impossible to find experts in remediation of contaminated sites who work outside of the remediation industry.  It is also worth noting that the remediation industry in its manuals on methods does not define any sites as unsuitable for remediation and dehumanises the remediation process by referring to humans, animals and plants in range of contamination as `receptors’. 

Problems with the applicant’s submission on levels of contamination and remediation

The applicants appear to minimise the degree to which the site is contaminated; they say in the Environmental Statement, Volume I, November 2023 that the 2003 `remediation removed the principal source of historical contamination on the Site and prepared the Site for a vacant and secure end use’ using words written by the Council.  This is not exactly what the Council stated - they were referring to the southern end only.

The application also states ‘Residual tar reportedly remains in deeper Chalk fractures and principally in the Chalk fractures in the zone of groundwater fluctuation in the south-west of the Site’. In fact borehole sampling shows this tar is there, and the applicants also say `Tarry residues are known to exist in the deeper Chalk fractures in the south west of the site’, contradicting the inconclusiveness found elsewhere: reported results are inconsistent.  These tarry deposits in the chalk are higher than the level to which continuous flight augers will drill for pilings, so will be disturbed, as is acknowledged by AtkinsRéalis.  People working on or living near the site can smell tars in the air when borehole testing is done. 

Most of the test results come from the south western `remediated’ parts of the site. They do not come from the west and central areas where the retort houses (in which gas was made) were. Much of this area is under the bus garage and offices: nobody knows what is under them, but they are likely to be sitting on top of the buried retorts and pipework which will contain contaminant residues of tars, scattered spent oxides (ferrocyanide or blue billy) and broken asbestos from the pipe and boiler linings.  Neither are there many results from the northern areas where there were more tanks, two of which remain, along with toxic sludge containing petrochemicals.

The applicants state that `contaminants typically found on former gasworks were generally absent and this is likely due to the limited extent and timing of coal gas manufacturing undertaken in the south west and west of the Site, which ceased by the late-1880s’. They do not acknowledge that these contaminants are indestructible.  We know from the experience at Hove Gasworks that these contaminants are still very active. 

They say that in 40 soil samples they found `marginal exceedances of arsenic, lead, TPH, naphthalene and benzo(a)pyrene. Benzo(a)pyrene and naphthalene were the only parameters to be measured marginally above one order of magnitude of the SSVs in three samples. TPH was detected above the SSV in only one sample. Detectable asbestos was found in one of 46 soil samples tested and was identified as ‘free fibres’ quantified at low concentration (0.024%)’. Resultant risks are considered very low or negligible. These toxins are however not usually found in the air we breathe.

It is unsurprising that anyone reading these reports will be concerned.

The water sampling results `indicated exceedances of the Environmental Quality Standards for coastal waters (EQSc) or Drinking Water Standards (DWS) for eight chemical parameters (arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, zinc, iron, ammonium and total cyanide) from a limited number of samples. Exceedances of the EQSc in groundwater sampled from the same locations included free cyanide, copper, nickel, zinc, metals, PAH (naphthalene and anthracene), TPH (aliphatic >C31 to C35 and aromatic >C8 to 35), phenol and benzene. Exceedances of the DWS by ammonia, sulphate, total cyanide, iron, nickel, TPH (aromatic >C10 to C12), and benzene were detected in groundwater sampled from the south-west and centre-south of the Site. Exceedances of the EQSc in groundwater sampled from the same locations included free cyanide, copper, nickel, zinc, metals, PAH (naphthalene and anthracene), TPH (aliphatic >C31 to C35 and aromatic >C8 to 35), phenol and benzene’.

Again the resultant risks are considered to be very low or negligible. However as water is constantly moving through and underneath the site, it is likely that if these contaminants are in the water they must also be in the ground, casting some doubt on overall test results. Additionally borehole sampling is by necessity limited in scope.

AtkinsRealis acknowledge that:

`The works that require a carefully designed strategy for the control of dust, vapour and odours are

the demolition of existing structures (including two redundant gasholders)

dewatering and desludging the two below ground gasholder tanks, remediation and enabling earthworks excavations, and operational construction plant and road vehicles

Treatment and re-use of suitable materials to infill the resultant voids of the two below ground gas holders

Off-site disposal of unsuitable materials that do not meet the re-use criteria presented in the Atkins Detailed Quantitative Risk Assessment’.

So the presence of `unsuitable materials’ is recognised here, and the works described acknowledge contamination across the whole site.

The Remediation Strategy `recommends that CS2 basic ground gas and vapour mitigation is employed for buildings that do not include undercroft parking and have residential spaces directly in contact with the ground above deep infilled Gasholders’. Buildings will be erected on membranes designed to prevent toxins in the ground from leaching through.  Clearly the site is considered to be affected now and for all time by toxic chemicals in the ground.

The 2023 application does not give special consideration to the exceedances of naphthalene highlighted by Leap Environmental.  AtkinsRéalis say that part of monitoring, `sniff’ testing by humans could be used because ‘some pollutants such as naphthalene may not be detectable at very low concentrations and, while they may not have direct health impacts at that level, can still cause annoyance as they have a very low odour threshold’.  

It is acknowledged that there may be hotspots and other sources of contamination not currently known about. The list of control measures makes concerning reading as all activities and movements will agitate soil and generate dust, while the wind will make stockpiles difficult to keep intact - maybe only a few yards from people’s houses. Monitoring of gas emissions by Tenax tubes will be largely retrospective and calibrated to measure `safe’ levels of exposure and detect exceedances. 

Workplace exposure to carcinogens and other health hazards is subject to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH).  These limit exposure during the working day to pollutants over a period of time.  The remediation industry has extrapolated from these measurements to assess `safe’ levels of lifetime exposure to come to a `safe’ level of exposure for people living near contamination and possibly being exposed all day every day of the year.  These calculations have not been approved by medical experts and do not factor in continuous exposure over a short period especially where there are `exceedances’.  If this application succeeds residents near East Brighton gasworks are likely to be exposed to high levels of pollutants for an intense period of a year or two during the initial remediation of the site and then to experience further exposure during deeper excavations, piling and building.  Their bodies will need to be resilient against pollutants not usually found in the air we breathe as well as encountering all the usual pollutants found in built up areas. Health effects such as the nausea, dizziness, breathing difficulties and unusual cancers experienced in Southall and near other gasworks developments are a likely consequence. The community meetings, diaries and reporting systems suggested as part of monitoring seem an unfortunate imposition on people with already busy lives who would now forced to be vigilant over another, yet more serious compromise to their health.

St William/Berkeley Group capacity

St William/Berkeley Group in meetings with AGHAST during 2023 confirmed that they had ‘made mistakes’ by leaving contaminated soil in a `soil hospital’ at the Southall Gasworks development site. However at the time, although residents frequently complained to St William/Berkeley Group about the ill-health being experienced by those living near the `soil hospital’ they took no steps to remove it and to change tack, and indeed have since used this method in Hornsey at least. It is probable that only because their methods are now coming under scrutiny, and they are encountering well-informed local campaigns opposing them, that they are seeking to appear capable of improving conditions on future sites. The Southall residents have never received an apology or any redress for the misery they went through and are still experiencing.

Imperial College London have obtained public funds for research into the effects on the health of Southall residents. Their initial findings will be available later this year. In September 2023 Lloyd Russell-Moyle, our local MP, held a briefing for MPs on the subject of the health effects of living near contaminated sites being developed. Ministers responsible have been advised of these research projects, and it is hoped that new regulations and protections might come into force when results are available. A copy of the letter written to the minister is attached.

St William/Berkeley Group stated at the meetings with AGHAST that they are still exploring the best way of clearing gasworks sites, and hope to make the development of Brighton Gasworks an `exemplar’ of the industry. They say they will not use ‘a soil hospital’ or carry the soil away if given permission to develop the Brighton site. Instead they will use it to back fill the voided gas tanks in the north east of the site. However according to the AtkinsRéalis report on remediation, soil will still be treated and piled in heaps prior to being carted across the site and left in a heap in the voids - like a ‘soil hospital’. This heap will be there as excavations continue until the voids are filled and capped. St William/Berkeley Group also say they will excavate the site area by area instead of uncovering it all at once. However as the AtkinsRéalis report makes clear, when uncovering a toxic area they will have to proceed with clearing it, and can only limit the effects using water hoses to dampen dust and plastic covering sheets to seek to retain it. They cannot control gases being emitted. When this situation was discussed at a meeting between AGHAST and St William last year the arrangements for monitoring for emissions and for warning residents was discussed. In the event of immediate concerns about smells reported by residents there was talk of monitoring for toxins with hand held monitors and experienced `sniffers’ as well as the fixed Tenax tubes. This does not inspire confidence as no-one wants to inhale toxic fumes and then have to force developers to try to control them, which is in any case impossible to do.

At Southall residents concerned about smelly gases coming into their homes were told the smells were from their domestic detergents or people smoking - people who did not smoke were told that. `Sniffers’ never upheld residents’ concerns while the monitors did not seem to work or to record anything.  However it seems unlikely that those living near gasworks should go to the trouble of making up concerns.  Once people have smelled an unpleasant toxic smell they have already inhaled it, and may well continue to inhale it, until such a time as the material emitting it is once again capped, removed or built upon. It seems unfair that people should be subjected to this.  I have myself witnessed Zoom meeting participants living near gasworks gagging on the air being breathed in their homes.

At the meetings in 2023 AGHAST also asked St William/Berkeley Group for information about how the existing gas tanks would be cleared, as there had recently been serious problems at Mitcham during works by SGN. When the tanks there were cut open using heat, gases from toxic sludge were ignited causing an explosion and an enormous cloud of black dust which blew towards nearby homes.  People living there were advised to seal themselves into their homes, and were unable to spend time outside for several months.  The fumes caused their eyes and noses to stream and they had great difficulties with breathing, as well as headaches, nausea and poor sleep.  Some people required hospital treatment.  Towards their aim of `exemplary’ status St William/Berkeley Group told AGHAST that they will not use heat to cut into the gas tanks and that the existing tanks would be completely cleared without any emissions being given off using a new extraction system trialled at a site at The Oval.  We were however not given the full facts.

AGHAST were then shown a diagram of this new extraction system in operation showing odour suppressant machinery being used to control emissions.

St William told us it will take 15 weeks to decontaminate the gasholders and 3-5 months to demolish them.  They contain 1000+ tankers worth of waste gas water which is therefore `not feasible’ to remove by tanker.  The gaswater will contain oils, greases, suspended solids, organic materials and condensate from gas.  It will be treated and discharged into foul sewage over an 8 week period as the water authority controls the rate that waste water can be released to the system. According to AtkinsRéalis’ Air Quality and Odour Management Plan they will enter the tanks via old hatches, and will extract the toxic water inside tanks 5 and 7 using a large pipe. There will be emissions once the dewatering has taken place and the sludge is being dealt with. This sludge contains tars which will give off napthalene, benzene and other toxins.  The report says that odour suppression techniques would be deployed. This situation would not be welcomed by local residents. The Council were right to prevent SGN from emptying and demolishing these tanks in 2018 in order to protect the environment, and would be right to do so again.  Refusing this application would also protect the health of residents. 

Berkeley Group are one of the few developers prepared to take on the development of contaminated land. Some might say this is because they do not perceive or have concerns about the risks involved.

In 2017 a fire engulfed a block of flats built by Berkeley Group at Snodland in Kent. Then in 2019 a fire totally destroyed Richmond House, also built by the company, in 11 minutes, due to a lack of sufficient fire breaks in the wooden framework holding cladding. All residents got out but were left on a winter’s night with nothing but their nightclothes. Then in October 2020 900 people were ordered to immediately leave another Berkeley development, Paragon House, due to fire safety concerns which another company is now being paid to put right.

In view of the loss of life in the Grenfell fire tragedy all active developers were asked by the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to contribute to a remediation fund by a certain date or be barred from operating. Berkeley Group was among the last few companies to sign up, more than a month after the deadline. Previously their CEO, Rob Perrins, had been calling publicly for reliance on better fire prevention measures instead of replacing combustible cladding systems. This approach has been completely rejected by the industry’s regulators and by responsible developers as well as by worried residents not wishing to live in a tinder box. A residents’ group called `End our cladding scandal’ managed to get a representative into the Berkeley AGM 2023 with a long list of concerns which are on-going.

It seems reasonable to suggest that Berkeley Group have a questionable safety record and do not appear to willingly recognise and act on risks recognised more widely in the industry, therefore allowing them, perhaps, to feel less concerned about the risks inherent in developing gasworks sites.

It is interesting to note that the buildings described in the 2021 Brighton Gasworks application did not have two staircases, seen as essential by fire safety experts, and legally required in all blocks by 2030, despite the history of fires in Berkeley Group developments. A second staircase has now been added to the design at the fire department’s request. It would have been expected that a company both cognisant of safety issues and of upcoming building regulations would include these from the beginning.


Although brownfield development is now seen by government as the way to add to the housing stock gasworks sites are something else. Developments on industrial estates and railway sidings do not encounter 70+ years’ worth of toxic pollution. Gasworks sites are dangerous sites: this one also houses a gas pressure reduction station and new buildings would be erected around it. The application states that the developers are aware of all the buried pipework but there is reason for doubt as a pipe was almost cut during the 2003 `remediation’. It was stated then that this was not shown on the plans - and there may be more hidden infrastructure.

People interested in the details of this application for planning permission for housing have to read many thousands of documents with a lot of scientific information instead of merely considering such matters as design and benefit to the community. It seems wrong for such building work to be proposed for a residential area. This is not a normal site for development. The development of gasworks sites should in my view be prohibited to protect the environment or if unavoidable only allowed if they are a considerable distance from residential areas. For example, there seem to have been no publicly recorded complaints about the development of the King’s Cross gasworks site, perhaps because it was sited in an industrial area of 87 acres where there were no homes or schools. The railway station was placed inside an `enclosure’ to protect passengers - a very expensive measure.  The Oval site too is some way from housing, whereas in Brighton people live in very close proximity on 3 sides of the site and in the Marina to the south.

It is clear that the East Brighton gasworks site is polluted and that the scale of this is not completely known because of the cap and buildings now on top of the buried gasworks buildings, equipment and waste.  If planning permission is granted the works will be unstoppable whatever is found, and whatever the risks to, and the daily effects on, the health and wellbeing of local people.

In 2018 the City refused permission for the demolition of the gas tanks.  The City Plan is clear that `Planning permission will not be granted for the development of polluted land or land adjacent when the nature and extent of contamination is such that even with current methods of remediation the proposed development will put people, animals and/or the surrounding environment at risk’.


Surely these conditions are met by this application?

Please refuse this application on grounds of the unsuitability of the site for development, and/or any other grounds considered appropriate.