Asbestos matters: the Waltham Forest Town Hall fiasco

The Council’s recent conviction over the asbestos dust that it allowed to pollute the Town Hall has been well covered in the local press, see for example:

But two matters remain to be clarified. The first is the role played by NPS London Ltd. (NPSL).

NPSL is the joint venture company that was created when the Council outsourced its building consultancy division in March 2007 (the background is covered in the Cabinet minutes of 23 January 2007). It has a ten-year contract with the Council to advise about, and ‘to procure works and specialist services’ in relation to, ‘all construction matters’. This contract is worth millions of pounds. LBWF owns 20 per cent of NPSL, the other 80 per cent belonging to NPS Ltd., a private company; and in return for its 20 per cent share, LBWF retains two places on the NPSL board. Over the years, various luminaries have occupied these places, including Cllrs Akram, Robbins, Rusling, and Wheeler, together with LBWF Chief Executive Martin Esom, who was a NPSL director from June 2010 to July 2014.

In a normal local authority, there would be no confusion about what role, if any, NPSL has played in the latest fiasco. But this is Waltham Forest. So while Mr. Esom claimed to me in 2012 that NPSL was ‘our advisers on asbestos matters’ (e-mails, 9 November and 23 November), an NPSL spokesman has now come forward to tell the Waltham Forest Guardian directly the opposite – that the company ‘had “nothing to do” with it’ – the ‘it’, we may reasonably conclude, being the 2012 discovery of asbestos dust in the Town Hall (print edition, 29 January 2015).

The spokesman’s denial is certainly curious, for several different reasons. The LBWF Asbestos Policy of November 2007, updated in March 2010 – which as far as I know was the version current in 2012 – mentions NPSL on multiple occasions, and contains a flow chart suggesting it was central to policy planning, advice, and the commissioning of surveys (I’ve pasted the policy in the documents box, left, for those who are interested – see especially p.6). Second, it is a fact that the survey which triggered the discovery of asbestos dust in 2012 – which was carried out by GBNS Ltd – explicitly names NPLS as both ‘customer’ and ‘instructing party’. Finally, it is worth noting that NPSL has worked closely with LBWF on other recent asbestos problems, notably the episode at St Mary’s School in Walthamstow (which will be covered in a forthcoming post).

The second matter which requires clarification is the way that LBWF and NPSL interacted. In November 2012, I asked Mr. Esom how he dealt with the potential conflict of interest which stemmed from the fact that he was simultaneously, one, chief executive of a council and, two, director of a private company that this council did substantial business with. The key part of his answer reads as follows:

‘I fully recognise my role as board director, and also Chief Executive of the authority and ensure that the two roles are not blurred. My deputy, Shifa Mustafa, acts as the lead client and she has a free reign to fulfill that task in the best interests of the local authority. She reports to a variety of Cabinet Members directly on the performance of NPS’ (e-mails 22 November and 4 December 2012).

So far so good. But when I then asked to see ‘the reports that Ms. Mustafa had produced for Cabinet members in 2011 and 2012’, I was told that they were ‘verbal and therefore no formal paper reports exist’ (FIA 2012/0874).

Similarly, though in other correspondence Mr. Esom told me that ‘Council officers had both face to face and telephone discussion on all matters related to the GBNS survey, the issues raised through the report and the actions to be taken’, he also observed: ‘These discussions would have been frequent and there is no reason why such discussions or meetings would have been recorded in writing’ (e-mail, 23 November 2012).

I leave it to others to decide whether this kind of interaction can be judged as suitable, given the amount of public money that was changing hands, and the fact that the issues being discussed included asbestos.