Council in UK ‘failed to monitor success of safety work’, Low Westwood family wins battle with former council over mine gas leak

Council ‘failed to monitor success of safety work’, Low Westwood family wins battle with former council over mine gas leak by Joanne Butcher, April 20, 2013, Chronicle Live
A family from County Durham who had to move into a portable building after lethal gas filled their home have won their court case. … Avril and Colin Willis were forced to leave their home of 35 years after carbon dioxide from a disused mine seeped inside. Now, seven years later, a judge has ruled that not enough was done by Derwentside District Council. Although the mine workings were sealed off, the Willis’ have been left unable to sell or mortgage their family home in Low Westwood, near Hamsterly Colliery, County Durham. And they fear thousands of pounds have been wiped off the property value while they still feel unsafe inside. The saga began in July 2006 when investigators discovered dangerous underground gas, called scythe gas, was leaking from the shaft of a council-owned disused mine. The Coal Authority said the levels posed a risk of suffocation and the couple, along with their son Christopher and his girlfriend, were evacuated. But wanting to remain near the animals on their small holding, they moved into a portable building until Christmas.

On behalf of the council, the Coal Authority carried out £150,000-worth of work to seal the mouth of the shaft and re-route the gas, which naturally builds up in mine workings. Since then, gas levels have remained safe. But because the council have refused to maintain and monitor the work, the Coal Authority have not issued a certificate to confirm it was successfully completed. That means the Willis’ are unable to sell their £200,000 home – a former pumping station which took water from the mine to Consett Iron Works – or get a mortgage on it.

So the family took Derwentside District Council to court for the loss of their home’s value. They also asked for compensation for the deaths of some of their animals in 2006, which they blame on the gas, for a delay in starting the work, and for a refusal to reveal details about the leak and the remedial scheme, prompting them to employ their own expert.

The council denied all liability, saying they had taken appropriate steps to deal with the problem. Judge Mr Justice Briggs, sitting in the High Court, accepted that the remedial works were successful. But he added: “The fact remains that the property is, at present, un-sellable and un-mortgageable because of the combined effect of the absence of a certificate of the satisfactory completion of the remedial works and the existence of a dispute about their adequacy, if not satisfactorily monitored. I consider that a response in the form of a remedial scheme, but without either obtaining a certificate of its satisfactory completion, or committing to its monitoring and maintenance, falls short of the taking of reasonable steps to abate the nuisance.” But he was unwilling to grant the Willis’ the full value of their home, instead encouraging the parties to work together to finally certify the works. Derwentside District Council was abolished and replaced by Durham County Council, which declined to comment. [Emphasis added]

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