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That sinking feeling: What to consider about sinkholes

Recent wild weather means sinkholes are more likely to occur – but what do you need to know?

There has been a dramatic upturn in the UK in the number of sinkholes. In December, a 20 ft sinkhole opened up on the M62 near Rochdale. In November, a huge sinkhole opened up in a residential street in Newcastle.

In October, a giant sinkhole appeared in St Albans causing five homes to be evacuated. In August, we witnessed a 40 ft sink hole on the Mancunian Way in Manchester, which caused traffic chaos for weeks.

There were a reported nine sinkholes in February alone, mainly caused by heavy rainfall and flooding. With the recent storms and floods that have hit the UK, and with the Met Office forecasting more heavy rainfall over the forthcoming weeks and months, this trend is likely to continue.

What are sinkholes?

A sinkhole is essentially ground that has collapsed through natural causes.

Sinkholes form when rainwater (which has become acidic through carbon monoxide in the air and/or through rotting vegetation and the soil) erodes rocks underground (commonly chalk and limestone) which, in turn, creates voids or cavities beneath thick soil. When the voids expand, the soil above them can collapse into the voids.

“Where appropriate, advise your client to obtain a specialist ground survey and/or obtain adequate insurance to cover sinkholes”

The increase in rainfall and flooding means more and more properties could be at risk. But what are the legal implications for construction? And what practical steps can be taken to help mitigate risk?

Conveyancing solicitors and surveyors

You should try to ensure that ground stability issues are identified and their implications highlighted to the client prior to exchange of contracts.

You should recommend that the client obtains an environmental report to provide risk screening and show areas of shallow mineworking, which are more susceptible to sinkholes. There are also databases of non-coal mining and natural cavities.

Where appropriate, advise your client to obtain a specialist ground survey and/or obtain adequate insurance to cover sinkholes.

Local authorities

When there are warning signs of a sinkhole in a public area, you should take positive action, such as commissioning a surveyor to assess the likelihood of collapse, or cordoning off or evacuating the area.

If not, then it could be argued that you have neglected your duty to adequately maintain that area or take reasonable safeguarding measures when a foreseeable risk of injury or damage emerged.

Homeowners/landowners

You should ensure your home insurance policy covers sinkholes. Take out extra insurance to cover garden features. A lot of insurance policies only cover damage to the fabric of the building and foundations, and it can be incredibly expensive to fill a huge sinkhole in your garden.

Landowners can face liability in negligence and nuisance caused to neighbouring persons or property by natural nuisances emanating from their land.

Again, if there are warning signs of a sinkhole and you fail to take reasonable steps to prevent it collapsing or causing damage, then you could be in breach of your duty of care in negligence and nuisance to the neighbouring owner.

Brokers (personal lines)

You should ensure that the limitations of building insurance are drawn to your client’s attention and that extra cover is recommended where appropriate.

Tom Handley is legal director at Hill Dickinson

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