It is without doubt that we are in the midst of a national housing crisis, with an ever-expanding population demanding for affordable and sustainable housing. As the government’s development accelerator, Homes England are tasked with releasing large-scale strategic developments as catalysts for change. One of their most important strategic schemes is the £150 million Northern Arc project, in Mid Sussex, which seeks to provide 3,500 new homes on the 200-hectare site over the next 10 years, with 20 percent of these being affordable homes. Ken Glendinning, head of strategic land at Homes England, said: “Burgess Hill is a great example of how we’re unlocking complex stalled sites to build more homes more quickly where they are most needed.” The key to releasing the development potential of the wider area was focused on Freeks Farm, a 200-hectare former tenant farm locked in a complex legal dispute, home to a unique combination of biological contamination, industrial waste, and a wide array of protected species and sensitive ecological receptors. Such a complex environmental contracting challenge meant that the partnership of AECOM and Sanctus was the only sensible choice in delivering every aspect of ecological works, site clearance, demolition, remediation and enabling works ahead of key infrastructure development. No-one could predict that works on site would align with the onset of a global pandemic, reconceptualizing what we all knew about living and working. For our incredible team working at Burgess Hill, this meant redefining environmental contracting and safe ways of working to ensure the continued delivery of this multimillion-pound scheme. As a result of our rapid adaptation and the team’s professionalism no days of work were lost on site, the programme was delivered ahead of schedule and not a single person became unwell.
Freeks Farm was a mixed-use semi working farm, with a history of livestock and arable farming. Years of neglect by previous landowners had culminated in a mass of unregulated, problematic waste, concentrated around ecologically sensitive woodland at the northern boundary and the derelict farmhouse to the south. End of life vehicles, livestock carcasses impacted by foot and mouth disease and anthrax, import of costly hazardous waste including asbestos and widespread abandonment of household and human waste present across site. The volume and complexity of unregulated waste challenged the development and required specialist waste management protocols, the highest levels of PPE / RPE and associated controls, that only a remediation and contamination specialist could provide. The clearance was constrained by overhead high voltage United Kingdom Power Network (UKPN) cables within the northern area of site. Control measures were put in place compliant with the Construction Design Management Regulations working around overhead power lines and continuous liaison with UKPN was required.
Sanctus were appointed by AECOM and Homes England in March 2020 to return a site safe for infrastructure works to commence. The enabling works package comprised full site clearance, demolition of existing buildings, waste segregation of all materials found across site, the discovery, testing and correct disposal of animal carcasses, and remediation of impacted soils. Throughout the planning stages Sanctus were made aware of the various complications / sensitivities on site, which posed risks to the programme of works. These included heightened ecological receptors (as the site was in proximity to a local nature reserve), tree protection areas designated by an independent arboriculturalist, the development itself being contested and resented by local residents with frequent aggressive incursions from former tenants as a result of legal grievances.
After only two weeks on site, on March 23rd, 2020 the country entered its first official lockdown due to Coronavirus (Covid-19). Overnight, Sanctus were made aware that the Secretary of State asked that work on this significant infrastructure project continued and to demonstrate our commitment we adapted our ways of working whilst other projects within the industry came to a halt. In the absence of any guidance from the Health and Safety Executive or Construction Leadership Council, at that time, we set the process of defining what it means to work safely within a pandemic. We implemented changes across site and logistical work including adaptations to accommodation, welfare facilities, travel, hygiene improvements (hand washing, cleaning regimes), controls (forming bubbles, limiting site access, enhanced social distancing), Expanded PPE (the wearing of PPE throughout including extended use of RPE) and enhanced Emotional Support for staff.
Sanctus’ procurement team worked tirelessly to find numerous self-contained accommodation facilities to ensure individuals could self-isolate when away from site. Individuals travelled separately to and from site and additional welfare facilities were provided to site to ensure social distancing during contracting works. Additional facilities were supported by military level precision in sequencing to keep both distancing and time spacing between individuals across the site, from arriving and leaving site, using facilities, and taking breaks.
Additional supplies of antibacterial hand wash reached site to support additional welfare facilities, when facilities were scheduled to be empty and absent, they were deep cleaned with antibacterial products and an exemplary level of hygiene policed by everyone involved.
Site controls were heightened, no additional team members allowed in or out of site, no changes to the team meant that site became its own socially distanced bubble. Social distance controls were extended beyond the 2m limit unless this could not be avoided for safety or required works. RPE was to be worn throughout that period and with full decontamination immediately after.
As a result of the industrial and biological risk of site Sanctus had invested in the very best PPE and RPE. The use of this was extended beyond specified areas to include anywhere an individual would be within 2m of another. This was hugely challenging in the height of summer with exposure to sun and heat, therefore we invested in additional sunscreen supplies and regular staggered breaks.
In the face of the pandemic and uncertainty our amazing site team stayed away from their family and friends to ensure this hugely important project progressed, taking its toll emotionally. Directors were made available 24/7 to the entire team supported by a professional mental health support service to provide support, guidance, and reassurance. This approach proved successful allowing for the programme to be delivered ahead of time and without a single case of COVID. This learning was regularly shared by our H&S Manager with the Construction Leadership Council and we understand this feedback helped inform the COVID guidance and best practise, helping so many companies return to work safely in the following months.
The Delivery Programme
Under the additional ways of working outlined above Sanctus addressed the following environmental contracting works ahead of programme, at cost and quality to ensure the planned handover to the next set of specialist contractors.
Ecological surveys identified four protected species on site which could impact our progression and delivery. Great crested newts (Triturus cristatus), bats (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) and hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) requiring specialist mitigations throughout works. Surveys indicated that the site was bound by Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera), a Non-Native Invasive Species. As a result of these sensitivities Sanctus were required to progress works around site under specific licenses granted by Natural England and an ecological watching brief. The areas where these species were suspected to inhabit and burrow, were declared as species designated areas. In the case of Freeks Farm, the dormice designated areas were limited, above ground level were conducted before April and below ground level works after May, while vegetation and tree removal had to be done prior to April to prevent nesting birds affecting the removal. Every aspect of these works was complicated and interrelated that vegetation clearance work had to be conducted under both full tree work PPE and also complete asbestos / biological RPE.
Existing buildings were demolished following their condemning by the Client. The former occupant’s farmhouse was the main focus of the demolition. This delipidated and harrowing building comprised a rotten wooden structure with large open drops across the floor, clearly abandoned with widespread human waste and deceased animal remains present within the building itself. Bat nesting features on the farmhouse were identified by the onsite Ecologist. To allow for demolition to continue all works had to be undertaken with an accompanying watching brief. Where a common Pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) was identified. Sanctus followed its procedure detailed within the site-specific risk assessment, making the area safe and arranging for an independent licensed ecologist to remove the bat. Sanctus’ rapid response meant there was no significant impact to the programme and no wildlife was hurt through the process. The controlled demolition and segregation at source allowed for materials to be processed into individual waste streams, allowing greater proportions of materials to be sent for offsite recycling at an appropriate facility, improving the estimates provided from original surveys and reducing the carbon footprint of the scheme.
Sanctus identified and confirmed widespread asbestos contamination on site with illegally imported cement bonded sheeting strewn across site, as well at asbestos containing materials present in all buildings and buried in several informal borrow pits in proximity to the farmhouse. Sanctus developed a bespoke onsite treatment facility to remove the asbestos containing material allowing material to be kept onsite. This approach significantly reduced the environmental and financial impact associated with offsite disposal, providing a saving of nearly £300,000 compared to direct disposal. As one of the country’s leading asbestos remediation contractors Sanctus undertook the works in accordance with our uniquely placed 3 Year Unconditional License to undertake Asbestos works, as issued by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Sanctus deployed mobile point source suppression systems capable of targeting specific work tasks using minimal water. Proprietary moto fog MFJ10-MINI units were used in combination with manual knapsack sprayer style units for discrete locations. Sanctus staff and approved supply chain machine operators (embracing our principles of supporting local plant and labour), utilised full PPE and RPE including Category 3 (Blue-Type) 5/6 particle tight coveralls and orinasal respirators (BS-EN-140) during investigation works.
The presence of animal remains, and carcasses across site posed significant human health risks to not only the Sanctus staff but future workers and users. Biological testing was undertaken on visible remains to test for Anthrax, Foot and Mouth and other biological risks. Bespoke bio-security controls were utilised with site specific risk assessments and method statements, based on the current industry best practice. Sanctus implemented strict decontamination and management procedures on site, utilising anti-viral and bacterial boot dips. Information provided by former workers identified an illegal burial site of suspected CJD infected cattle in an artificial pond feature. This required sensitive investigation to drain the pond area allowing access, sort through the debris and detritus, cataloguing finds whilst protecting visiting wildlife and future users. All operatives were issued re-useable FFP3 respirators with bio secure specific filter packs (for gas and vapour protection) which also removed the impact of foul odours and preventing the inhalation of airborne pathogens.
The development of complex sites to accommodate the increasing demand for housing is becoming more frequent within the construction industry. The ability of a specialist remediation contractor to remove all adverse human health and financial risks associated is more important than ever. Sanctus were able to demonstrate their unique expertise to deliver the enabling and clearance works in partnership with AECOM for Homes England. Sanctus’ adaptability and outstanding work ethic allowed the project to continue, while the majority of construction projects halted in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The unique control measures developed by Sanctus were fundamental in shaping the response to the virus within the construction industry whilst the dedicated work of the procurement and logistical team ensured Sanctus could continue on site. The result of our rapid adaptation, professionalism, and expertise meant not a single day was lost on site, the programme was delivered ahead of schedule and no one became unwell, all whilst redefining environmental contracting in the time of COVID.