Saturday, October 8, 2016

News: Wentworth Woodhouse owners unable to prove recent damage caused by subsidence

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The latest round in the legal battle between the owners of Wentworth Woodhouse in Rotherham and the Coal Authority has concluded that the owners have been unable to prove that damage to the historic property has been caused by recent mining subsidence.

The judge accepted that Wentworth Woodhouse has experienced mining subsidence on a substantial scale, not helped by the coal board being slow to act on previous damage claims, but concluded that it could not be shown that coal mining caused a second phase of subsidence damage after the 1980's.

The largest privately-owned house in Europe was added to the 2016 World Monuments Watch which calls international attention to cultural heritage under threat around the globe.

The Newbold family, who have been in a long-running legal battle with the Coal Authority confirmed that they had decided to sell the historic Grade I listed mansion house at the end of 2014. With an asking price of in excess of £8m, a deal was confirmed in February 2016 with the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust (WWPT) who have raised funds and developed a long term strategy for the future of the site.

The claim for damages against the Coal Authority, for at least £100m, is in respect of the damage caused by deep and open cast mining and is being disputed. Previous court appearances have proven that the claim is valid and hearings in the Upper Tribunal (Land Chamber) took place in April and May 2016.

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The decision has now been published outlining the case by the owners which aimed to prove that damage to the property in four separate areas is subsidence damage "at least likely to have been caused by ground movement attributable to mining."

The decision sets out: "The primary trigger for this movement is suggested [by the claimants] to be the collapse of old mine workings as a result of their inundation by rising ground water following the general cessation of pumping in the South Yorkshire coalfield in the 1990s. The Coal Authority asserts the contrary: that ground movement caused by mining ended many decades ago and that Wentworth Woodhouse is largely stable, with the damage visible in the four selected areas being either historic or attributable to a variety of other causes, including neglect and decay."

The case was presided over by Martin Rodger QC and P R Francis and heard from engineering and mining experts and the estate manager at the big house. For the owners, Michael Barnes QC and Eian Caws appeared, instructed by David Cooper & Co. Dominique Rawley QC appeared for the Coal Authority, instructed by DLA Piper solicitors.

After taking over the property in 1999 and carrying out some restoration works, the Newbold family reported that doors started to jam in the Pillared Hall, the Long Gallery and the King George IV suite, plaster cracks opened up in various internal walls and plaster mouldings fell from some ceilings.

The family commissioned a mining report in 2005 that told them the last subsidence damage had occurred more than 30 years previously and concluded that any new claim would be out of time or would be defeated on the basis that historic repairs had already been undertaken. Any damage of more recent origin would be attributed to other causes.

After serving the notice and defeating the Coal Authority's legal argument that the claim was invalid, further studies and analysis was carried out by both parties in 2014 and 2015.
The judge said that the Coal Authority's structural engineering report stressed that much of the damage caused was due to a combination of specific non-mining causes. The claimants reports concluded that whilst "there could be factors other than mining involved, such as damage to drains and culverts, poor maintenance and general decay, ... the line of movement through the mansion in particular loosely follows the predicted fault line and is likely to be mining related."

Mining engineering reports focused on "mine water rebound" causing movement and longwall mining techniques used on the nearby Parkgate seam which can cause surface subsidence.

The burden of proving the existence of damage is on the claimants and the judge concluded that "the damage at Wentworth Woodhouse may be subsidence damage." The Coal Authority was then called on to prove on the balance of probability that the damage has some alternative cause or to establish that on close investigation subsidence can be ruled out.

The judge said: "We are satisfied that the mechanism of damage relied on by the claimants in this reference does not explain the damage at Wentworth Woodhouse" and that most damage to the Parkgate seam would have accorded in the 1940's and not in the 1990's. He added: "Although the possibility of further consolidation, triggered by returning mine water, cannot be ruled out, there is no evidence to support it having occurred."

He added that technical monitoring evidence available since 1995 suggests that, "on the balance of probability, the house has been stable", and that evidence of the uplift in the ground "is incapable of differentiating between subsidence which undoubtedly occurred in the 1960s and any that may have occurred subsequently."

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The conclusion reads: "We are satisfied that Wentworth Woodhouse has experienced mining subsidence on a substantial scale. We are also satisfied that damage occurred for longer than would ordinarily have been anticipated by the application of conventional rules of thumb. This was, in particular, due to the presence of the fault which remained active for perhaps as much as fifteen years after the cessation of mining.

"We are also satisfied that the impression that mining related damage continued long after the time it would usually be expected to have ended was contributed to by the NCB's dilatory approach to carrying out or paying for repairs, which may have made it difficult until the 1980's for it to resist some questionable claims (the clearest example of this being in relation to the terrace wall).

"The preliminary issue we have been considering asks simply whether coal mining has caused subsidence damage in the four areas of investigation, which clearly it has to the extent we have identified. In their submissions and in the lay and expert evidence which they relied on, both parties addressed the more relevant question, namely whether coal mining caused a second phase of subsidence damage after the 1980s when mine water rebound began to occur. For the reasons we have given we are satisfied that it did not."

Wentworth Woodhouse website

Images: Savills


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