As a lawyer in the field of property, one of the simple tasks, when buying a piece of land, is to ask what are called ‘Preliminary Enquiries’. These are a set of questions that aim to dig out any little traps that might not be apparent when you visited Dun Lawerin’ and fell in love with your new home to be. Usually the answers are bland to the point of transparency.
Only sometimes, it wasn’t that simple…
Take the industrial site just outside Bath. The client’s business was failing and he had had to close the facility. What would in a lot of cases have been a financial disaster appeared to have a silver lining. When the business was established, in the 1930s the site was several miles outside of the town. By the 1970s Bath had grown and now the site was ringed by modern housing. Better still, while the industrial plant itself was likely to have some pollution a plot of several acres sat next to it, as green a field as you could image. At the time we were involved it was the sports ground for the company’s social club.
Several property developers circulated the site like rapacious vultures ready to feast on this carcass. The selling agents salivated at the prospect of a significant fee. All we lawyers had to do was complete the sale to the highest bidder and to make that smooth we (that is me) was set the task of filling out the industry standard questions as fully as possible and make the answers available to the prospective buyers.
My principal briefed me. ‘You’ll be meeting a Mr Sproggon. Apparently he’s worked for the company since before the war and knows the site backwards.’ Remember this was 1980/1 so Mr Sproggon was necessarily going to be pretty ancient.
‘Morning lad. You a lawyer?’
‘Nearly I’m training…’
‘Ah, I remembers me training. 1937 it were and we was given an horse to pull…’
I was still callow. I had little experience of dealing with people, like Mr Sproggon who liked to reminisce. I think I must have dozed a little because he brought me back to the moment with a tap on the arm and a toothless smile.
‘You got questions, lad?’
‘Ah yes, right.’ My heart had sunk to somewhere close to my lower intestine at the prospect of listening to the many long stories that would accompany each answer and there was a certain amount of that but we made decent progress.
Then we reached the part of the form that dealt with pollution and environmental matters. My principal had been quite specific. ‘You need to separate the answers between the industrial land and the green field. That’s what we are really selling.’ I made this clear to Mr Sproggon. He nodded and winked. He’d been given similar instructions.
‘Does the site contain any of the following…’ I began reading out a list of heavy metals and hydrocarbons, asbestos, radioactive materials, sheep’s carcasses – the list was pretty long and, encouragingly neither the industrial site and the green field received any sort of tick until…
‘explosives…’ I was moving at a pace, confident that there would be nothing.
Mr Sproggon had other ideas. ‘Explosives. Yes, probably.’
‘Really?’ It seemed odd, to have explosives on an industrial site.
He saw my confusion. ‘Wartime. We had an Ack-ack – anti-aircraft gun – to protect us. There were shells.’
‘Did they leak?’
‘Sorry?’ He was now confused.
‘I was wondering how the explosives might have got into the ground.’ Maybe, I thought, he just meant there had been explosives ‘on’ the site and not ‘in’ it. If so, then we could move on…
‘Ah, no. We lost some.’
‘You lost some? Some shells?’
‘Ah. About a dozen from memory. The area was quite boggy then and they, erm, went. We didn’t feel inclined to dig ’em up.’
‘They sank? And you left them? Isn’t that a bit, you know, rash? I mean surely if some piece of plant or a lorry drove over them…’
‘Why would they do that?’
‘Because it’s an industrial plant and I suppose there’s all sorts of machinery about.’
He laughed. How he laughed. ‘Nooo. It weren’t on the plant. We’d be bonkers to have a bloody gun right by the plant. It was on the field. Here.’
He jabbed a finger at the plan we had laid out in front of us. It wouldn’t have been very professional to peer through my fingers but that’s what I wanted to do. Sure enough that calloused digit was slap bang in the middle of the sports field, in the middle of what was already being plotted out as a new housing development.
‘Of course it were long ago.’ He moved his finger in a spiral. ‘I can’t be sure the gun were here. It was around here.’ The spiral grew and covered 75% of the sports field.
He looked at me. ‘Does that help?’
There were many occasions when the answers to these questions were dull and predictable, but you could never be certain when you would be blown away by an answer. Many years later a junior came to me; he was conducting a similar exercise but on a much bigger scale. In this case the Government was our client and a former naval property, situated within a few miles of central London came to be sold. He had reached a similar part of the form without anything untoward occurring, but from the washed out countenance in front of me, he too had been given some potentially difficult news.
‘I asked Commander Brogatt to go through the list. He identified one potential issue. He says he can’t be sure but he thinks at one point they had the motor for a submarine in the basement.’
‘Oh? Did they spill oil?’ Not really that much of a problem but he was right to mention it.
‘Not exactly. It was from a nuclear submarine. They had the reactor in the basement.’
‘Just the machinery I suppose?’ I was still hopeful. ‘Just the mechanical bits?’
‘They had it running for a while.’
‘A nuclear reactor. Here,’ we too had a map. I’d nearly bought a house about a mile away from this site.
‘He said he didn’t see it himself but he heard about it. He wondered if we need to disclose it? You know, if they ran a Geiger counter and it it didn’t read, erm, much?
Don’t you just love clients? I had a sale for one client held up on the day of completion because the buyers were not happy at how the garden had been left. The selling agents explained that the sellers appeared to have dug a series of holes in a flower bed down one side of the back garden.
‘Have they taken some plants? Or shrubs? I’m sure we went through that in the enquiries and they said they were leaving all plants and shrubs.’ There was a specific question about this.
The agent sounded more that a little exasperated. ‘Yes, I thought that. But they assured me they weren’t asked so they thought it must be all right.’
‘But I went through everything?’
‘Did you ask them if they wanted to take their long dead pets from where they’d buried them? Because that’s what they’ve been doing.’
Sometimes you can’t cover everything.