The DETR is trying to calm housebuilders’ and contractors’ fears that new regulations on contaminated land will leave them with huge clean-up bills.

The rules, which come into force on 1 April, are in a revision of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Under the act, local authorities will keep a register of contaminated sites and decide who should bear the cost of remediation.

If a polluter cannot be found, the owner of the site may be liable. This may affect contractors as well as housebuilders, as it can be argued that they own the site they are working on. In addition, if contamination is uncovered and spreads to adjoining sites, a housebuilder or contractor may be seen as the polluter.

The government has offered reassurance and has set aside funds to cover clean-up costs. A spokesperson for the DETR said: “Small businesses are not going to be forced out of business by this. There is a fund of £45m available over the next three years to help local authorities with the cost of remediation and there is a further £21m in 2000 from which local authorities can draw.”

One housebuilder said this funding was inadequate. Clive Wilding, managing director of Gleeson Homes, said: “It’s a bit of a tall order for £45m. It will inevitably cost developers money. There are project costs associated with doing tests as well as the cost of cleaning up contaminated land itself. If the process isn’t streamlined, it will potentially cause delay and cost a lot more.”

However, Ian Roxborgh, group planning director at Wimpey, said: “This is something the industry has been well prepared for. Wimpey pioneered new standards of clean up and the NHBC warranty scheme has been given an extension.”