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Smooth as SiLC

Peter Witherington

Geoscientist 17.7 July 2007

Peter Witherington examines the importance of SiLC certification in relation to the UK’s brownfield development programme…

Developed to support the Urban Task Force’s Land Condition Record in 1999, the Specialist in Land Condition (SiLC) certification has never been in any danger of becoming a superfluous addendum to the business card.

With an estimated 300,000ha of contaminated land to contend with in the UK and a bewildering array of legislative and bureaucratic hoops to jump through to unlock it, holders of the most high-profile professional qualification related to contaminated land conditions were always going to be hot property.

Trouble is, there are not that many of them around. Once the next crop of successful applicants tack their certificates to the wall, there will be around 130–140 accredited SiLCs. Not bad, but not great either. If we are to deal with the UK’s contaminated land legacy in a meaningful way, it is essential to have as many as possible on the front line. The breadth of knowledge and experience the qualification calls for is the most rigorous of its kind (last year’s pass rate was 35%), making graduates the best equipped in the business to extrapolate and advise on contaminated land issues.

From the outset the Association of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Specialists (AGS) has had close links with SiLC. AGS Immediate Past Chairman Hugh Mallett is one of the original members of the professional technical panel (PTP) that drives the qualification (a post he maintains to this day) and our members have always been passionate advocates of the qualification's virtues.

Personally, I have been an ardent proselytiser ever since I graduated from the SiLC’s first ever round of exams. At RSK, it is now company policy that any employee with the requisite experience sits the exams. We do not do it because we are looking for kudos; we do it because our clients respond to it. Redeveloping brownfield land into places for people to live, work and play on is a big responsibility. Developers need to get it right and knowing that they are dealing with people at the very top of their profession gives them the confidence to tackle brownfield through sustainable means.

In 2004, a House Builder Federation document entitled A Way Forward suggested that certification to a standard of SiLC’s stature would be a highly progressive step forward for land assessment. After liaising with the Remediation Licensing Task Force, the proposal was assimilated into English Partnerships’ National Brownfield Strategy, where it states: “funding should be made available by government to secure expansion of the Specialist in Land Condition (SiLC) scheme and to enable development of education and training courses.”

Presiding over the National Brownfield Strategy is English Partnerships’ Paul Syms, whose opposite number in the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) is Mark Rolls, who, by happy accident, happens to be chair of the SiLC PTP.

The SiLC PTP meets in April with a view to progress the proposal. If all goes to plan, this would bode extremely well for the future of contaminated land assessment in the UK.

In the meantime, SiLC’s credibility and influence is rude health as evinced by major developers such as National Grid Properties demanding it during the consultant evaluation process and the fact that local authorities such as Vale Royal Borough council will only work with SiLC-certified land assessors.

Significant brownfield development opportunities and challenges become more apparent with each passing year, a result of structural changes in the economy unlocking large tracts of land (primarily within urban contexts) and a multitude of complex social changes resulting in the need for an extra 2.4 million new homes in the next two decades in England alone. With development set to go into overdrive, the safety of the eventual and adjacent residents must be assured. SiLC might not be the ultimate solution but, in my experience, it certainly helps. 

Chartered Geologists with appropriate knowledge and experience in land condition are eligible to apply for SiLC. For more information about SiLC, see