Asbestos matters: Waltham Forest Council, PR, and keeping stum

So you are an employer who has just been found guilty of breaking the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 – of running your affairs, in other words, in such a way as to endanger your employees and those who visit your premises.

What do you do? Publicly apologise? Offer everyone involved some advice and support? Perhaps even take action against those who directly presided over the negligence?

Most of us would expect (and do) all of these things.

Yet after the recent court case, which has left LBWF in exactly the position I’m talking about, the only reaction currently discernible is…silence.

Check the Council’s website for instance. The ‘Latest News’ panel contains items on (what irony) a ‘Public Health Charter’
 (posted on 26 January 2015), ‘Changes to temporary accommodation local guidelines’ (posted on 15 January 2015), and ‘Read you favourite magazines for free’ (posted on the 5 January 2015) – but not a word about asbestos.

Turning to the Council Leader’s news blog gets us no further – items on LGBT History Month, and the no doubt exciting revelation that Turtle Bay is opening in Walthamstow, but nothing about our unfavorite ‘a’ word.

Indeed, I understand that even those who have taken up the court case directly with the Council – ex-employees who are worried by the news, and so on – meet just the same response: silence.

What explains this unpalatable situation? Unfortunately, I don’t think it is entirely unexpected. For some years LBWF has been in thrall to PR, and the most usual reaction when bad news breaks is exactly as now – keeping stum. It looks evasive, granted, but at least it prevents anyone in the Town Hall from digging an even bigger hole (and that has happened in the past).

However, on this occasion, there may be another ingredient involved as well. There is an election looming, and tribalism should be nearing its peak in the cycle. One might expect the ruling Labour Group to be pulling together. But everyone I talk to tells me exactly the opposite – that internal relations have never been more rancorous. Cllr. Robbins is contemplating retirement. His choice of successor is not wildly popular, to say the least. The ‘Asian bloc’ are flexing their muscles – witness the Peter Barnett affair. And that is on top of the longer-running antipathies: the alleged simmering and sometimes spiteful dislike of all-things-Stella, the ‘your in my gang, your not’ game playing, and the other shenanigans.

So maybe what we are looking at here, too, is some fairly influential people taking their eyes off the ball.

The pity, as always, is that all this can go on, but the only people who suffer the consequences are us – the ordinary people who worked in or visited the Town Hall, and the Council tax payers who will have to pick up the bill for getting rid of the asbestos as well as the big court fine which now seems inevitable.

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