In the mid-eighties developers desperate to meet the demand for speculative office space looked for a quick fix to the problems of construction liability. To give tenants and owners peace of mind they arm-twisted designers and other members of the construction team into signing collateral warranties which made them liable for a wide range of defects regardless of their level of involvement or how many times the building had changed hands since completion.
The tidal wave of work meant most firms shoved these warranties to the back of their minds (and their filing cabinets). But come the early nineties slump, the reality of carrying such onerous liabilities began to cause alarm. Firms began to refuse to sign warranties, enlightened clients began to take a more equitable approach, Latham stuck his oar in and the issue largely went away
But it is back - with a vengeance.
Remediating brownfield land raises significant questions of long term liability. If the UK is to breathe life into the ghost towns of the industrial north and to prevent further urban sprawl, then it needs to make the best possible use of derelict inner-city sites. The findings of Lord Rogers' Urban Task Force (see News) will, hopefully, add to the sense of urgency. However, many of the leading brownfield site developers appear to have adopted an all too familiar black and white approach to liability.
The result is a focus on the risk to firms involved in brownfield development instead of on the potential of sites. An adversarial atmosphere also means that the parties are sometimes too busy watching their own backs to worry about the public interest.
As Rogers acknowledges, risk must be spread more widely, more fairly and with more regard to the history and proposed use of individual sites. If developers, which include some Government agencies, will not adopt this approach then they must be made to act. With the Government displaying such a high profile commitment to urban regeneration, the time is right to redouble lobbying efforts.