By Tom Bedford and Ben Ellery
The Mail on Sunday – 05.02.2017
NETWORK RAIL is facing compensation claims that could total tens of millions of pounds after a landmark court ruling on damage caused to homes by Japanese knotweed growing on its land.
Neighbours Robin Waistell and Stephen Williams took on the rain giant after the plant, growing on a railway embankment next to their bungalows, spread into the foundations of their homes. The pair saw the value of their properties almost halved because of the invasion.
The plant’s roots can force their way through brick and concrete, and it is difficult and expensive to eradicate them. Neither Mr Waistell, 70, nor Mr Williams, 43, can sell their homes because lenders will not give mortgages on properties affected by knotweed.
Network Rail had previously settled cases out of court but when the men, from Maesteg, South Wales, sued for damages, the company decided to fight them in an effort to put a stop to future claims.
But the neighbours successfully argued that the knotweed roots encroached on their homes, causing nuisance and interfering with the ‘quiet enjoyment ‘of their properties. The applicants also wanted Network Rail to tackle the plant because it grows quickly in summer that it blocks their light.
After a four-day hearing at Cardiff County Court, Recorder Andrew Grubb ruled in their favour and ordered the Government body to pay £4,320 to each claimant to treat the knotweed. And in what is being seen as a key test case, he also awarded them £10,000 each in compensation for the fall in value of their homes. Mr Waistell’s bungalow, which was previously worth £135,000, is now valued at £69,000. Crucially, the judge stressed that, if Network Rail failed to get rid of the knotweed, Mr Waistell and Mr Williams could claim for the full drop in the value of their homes.
Mr Waistell’s solicitors, Rodger Burnett, of London-based Charles Lyndon, said: ‘This result is historic. It’s a victory which will have huge implications across the whole country’.
Network Rail barrister Andy Creer said: ‘Network Rail has thousands of miles of track across the country and any number of people whose lands adjoins those tracks.
‘this will have a significant impact on Network Rail fulfilling its primary duty to ensure the safe operating of the rail network’.
The body, which is responsible for the UK’s rail infrastructure, is now considering taking the case to the High Court.
Japanese knotweed is one of the most invasive species in the world. It arrived in the UK in the 1820’s, and the cost to homes in terms of devaluation and treating it is an estimated £166million a year. Expert witnesses told the hearing that the plant can reach 9ft and its roots can spread more than 20ft horizontally.
The court heard that Network Rail gangs are dispatched to treat the problem but the work is not considered a priority against repairing track, barriers and fences.
Instead of treating the plant with a special weed killer, Network Rail did nothing for four years – to the fury of Mr Waistell and Mr Williams, Workers finally turned up just 48 hours before the hearing but have failed to eradicate the problem.
Kitchen fitter Mr Williams said: ‘We have paved the way for thousands of homeowners to get compensation, bur for the moment I’m still stuck here.
‘The judge ordered Network Rail to treat it but until that’s done properly, I can’t sell my house’.