What can landowners and developers do to protect themselves against being left with that sinking feeling?

February 14, 2018

Sinkholes can be devastating to both life and property, warns law firm Furley Page


No landlord likes voids – especially those that appear under your property. Sinkholes can be the result of history, geology or weather but, however they appear, they inevitably mean unexpected hazards, disruption and expense.

As Liz Brady, Partner at leading Kent legal firm Furley Page, explains, landowners and developers can be left with serious headaches by sinkholes but there are a few prudent measures they can take to minimise their level of risk.

Sinkholes are usually caused by rock which dissolves leaving a void into which the surface land collapses. The most common triggers for the appearance of a sinkhole are heavy rain or flooding, leaking pipes, changes to natural drainage by building works or climate change; and mining and tunnelling.

They can turn up almost anywhere at any time of the year. Recent cases in Kent include in 2014, when a five metre deep hole suddenly appeared in the middle of the M2 motorway near Faversham; in 2015, when properties in Gravesham had to be evacuated following the collapse of 200-year-old chalk workings; and in 2017, in Thanet, when part of the car park at Westwood Cross sank into tunnels created by the Army for training exercises during the First World War.

If a sinkhole does appear on your land it’s important to cordon off the area and, if appropriate, contact the emergency services, as well as informing utility providers and the local authority, advises Liz. But what prudent steps can you take to minimise the risk of the problem occurring at all?

“If you are buying or leasing land or buildings, you should carry out a desktop environmental survey which will look into the known history and geology of the site,” said Liz. “It will identify ground stability hazard risks and other matters and should be carried out as part of your due diligence in the conveyancing process.”

She said builders and developers should consider whether to build a Sustainable Drainage System (SuDS) which replicates natural drainage and reduces flooding and water build-up.

It’s also worth doing some simple online research. The British Geological Survey website www.bgs.ac.uk offers useful information and advice and a map of UK subsidence hotspots since 2013 can be found at www.geobear.co.uk

Liz concludes: “It seems likely that the incidence of sinkholes is set to increase substantially given climate change with sporadic heavy flooding events and increased population making heavier demands on land use.

“As a consequence, we should all make checks on the ground beneath our feet.”

Liz is a member of Furley Page’s highly-regarded Real Estate team and she has extensive experience of advising clients on a range of property transactions. She is a member of the Commercial Real Estate Legal Association and the Kent Law Society.

For more information and advice on property issues contact Liz Brady by email at efb@furleypage.co.uk or call 01227 763939