Town Hall asbestos: LBWF comments, at last

On 27 January 2015, Trevor Calver and I called for LBWF Chief Executive Martin Esom to resign over the Town Hall asbestos affair. Here is the correspondence that followed in date order, beginning at the bottom with our initial e-mail.


20 March 2015

‘Dear Mr. Fenwick,

Thank you for your e-mail.

Most of it of course is entirely irrelevant to the points that we raised with Mr. Esom on 27 January 2015, points he has subsequently been so reticent about responding to.

As to the parts that are relevant, our response is as follows.

First, your contention that there was a ‘discovery’ of asbestos in the Town Hall in 2012 is entirely inaccurate.

Winton reported that asbestos was present in the Town Hall as long ago as 1984, identifying specific locations in the building’s basement, ground floor, and first floor; while in 2002, Environmental Contamination Services not only confirmed these facts, but added that asbestos was also present in specific locations on the second and third floors.

Significantly, the latter discovered Amosite and Chrysotile ‘debris’ on a ledge in the Town Hall basement, and rated six Town Hall sites ‘Medium Risk – Material requires near term attent’n’, and seven Town Hall sites ‘Low risk – Material requires regular inspection’.

So, all in all, the presence of asbestos in the Town Hall was a long established fact in 2012, and there is no question of any ‘discovery’ having been made.

Turning to the substance of our e-mail – that Mr. Esom made a significant error of judgment in creating a reporting system between the LBWF and NPSL at senior level that was purely ‘verbal’ – we note that you seek to downplay the significance of this reporting system by observing, in general, that NPSL only played a subservient or purely reactive role in LBWF asbestos matters, and in particular that ‘the Council would not expect the NPSL board to consider matters relating to asbestos management in the Town Hall basement, as it was not their responsibility’. However, neither of your observations stands up to scrutiny.

The LBWF Asbestos Policy (AP) operative from 2010 onwards conclusively demonstrates that far from being subservient or purely reactive, NPSL was in fact central to everything that went on, and crucially was supposed to advise ‘on all assets where risk assessment and then regular checks should be undertaken’ [emphasis added] – a point that is well illustrated in the flow chart on p.6 of the document, where NPSL is positioned right at the very start of the ‘Managing Asbestos in Council Buildings’ procedure. In short, the AP rightly envisaged the management of asbestos as dynamic and ongoing, with NPSL allotted a key role.

Thus, contrary to your assertion, the Board of NPSL had clear responsibility for actively advising on the Town Hall basement, just as it did for every other Council site where asbestos was known to be present. Of course, whether it carried out that responsibility is yet to be established. But whatever the truth, our substantive point stands: given that the NPSL Board had the responsibility it did, that its deliberations were reported to LBWF Cabinet members only in verbal form was obviously inappropriate.

This is all the more so, because, as we are now establishing, other lines of communication between LBWF and NPSL at this time were weak. In our previous e-mail, we pointed out that, by its own admission, LBWF was unable to state when it received the crucial GBNS report of 2012, and that many other communications with NPSL about the Town Hall asbestos were not committed to paper. It now turns out that though the contract between LBWF and NPSL required that ‘The Managing Director of the Company and “the Executive Director of Corporate Services” of the Council…meet once every two (2) months during the Operating Period to discuss the performance by the Company of the Services’ (clause 7.5), LBWF is only able to supply evidence that three such meetings occurred in 2011 and 2012 taken together, while those present at the meetings that did occur anyway did not include the officers named.

For these reasons, we reject in its entirety you apologia, and reiterate our call for Mr. Esom to resign.

Yours sincerely,

Nick Tiratsoo and Trevor Calver’


6 March 2015

‘Dear Mr Tiratsoo & Mr Calver,

I write in response to your letters of 27 January and 27 February (both sent by email) to Martin Esom. Mr Esom has asked me to respond as the Director of Governance but also the chair of the Council’s Corporate Health & Safety Board which has corporate oversight of health and safety matters. I apologise for any delay in responding.

The criminal proceedings against the Council are listed for a sentencing hearing on 30 March and the Council will not comment on the details of those proceedings. As you are aware the hearing is in public when the Council’s mitigation in respect of the sentencing will be put and anyone is free to attend. Subsequent to the hearing, the Council will make an appropriate public statement.

I can clarify the relationship between the Council and NPS (London) Ltd (NPSL) for you in respect of the management of health and safety in Council buildings.

The Council has at all times been legally responsible for the health and safety of staff and contractors in Council buildings. Specifically, the lead responsibility lay with the Council’s Property Services Team and Head of Property Services (or equivalent previous title). The Council’s guilty plea arose from that service’s failure to manage asbestos in the Town Hall Basement.

NPSL was formed in 2007 to provide a range of professional services to the Council relating to buildings and construction projects. It is a company part owned by the Council but is a separate legal entity. Prior to the formation of NPSL, these services were the responsibility of the Council’s in house Building Consultancy service.

NPSL provides services in the project management of building works, of which a part was advice on the need for asbestos surveys prior to carrying out building works. When NPSL identified a need for a survey, they would then commission the necessary surveys on the Council’s behalf and liaise with the Council on the results providing advice on appropriate steps to take. This may in turn lead to the need to commission specialist contractors to deal with any asbestos related works. This is, in summary, NPSL’s role in the project to refurbish the Town Hall reception area in early 2012. They were not commissioned to undertake any other asbestos management functions in relation to the Town Hall basement.

Therefore, Mr Esom’s description of the role of NPSL as advisory was and is accurate.

The business of the NPSL Board is a matter for that Board but, given these distinct roles identified above, the Council would not expect the NPSL board to consider matters relating to asbestos management in the Town Hall basement, as it was not their responsibility.

Moreover, there has been no suggestion that any of the services NPSL provided in this period did not meet professional standards or were negligent. Indeed, it was NPSL’s actions which identified the continued presence of asbestos in the Town Hall Basement leading to the remedial action undertaken by the Council.

Turning to the Council’s action, it is clear that since the discovery of the asbestos in 2012, the Council has taken all necessary steps to manage asbestos in the Town Hall Basement and meet legal standards. This followed the advice of NPSL and specialist contractors, including decontamination of affected rooms, destruction of affected materials and documents and encapsulation. The HSE was notified of the works to be carried out on 10 February 2012.

Secondly, the Council has reviewed and revised its governance of health and safety, especially in buildings and its oversight now falls under me as Director of Governance and the chair of the Corporate Health and Safety Board, which includes trade union representation. This Board via my role has a direct reporting line to the Council’s senior management team, the Management Board chaired by the Chief Executive. Its terms of reference allow matters to be escalated to the Management Board.

Thirdly, all corporate buildings have now been surveyed for asbestos and a remedial programme of action is currently under way. The Council is confident that it is now effectively and lawfully managing asbestos in its buildings and providing a safe system of work for its employees, contractors and others accessing its buildings.

Fourth, in consultation with the trade unions via the Corporate Health & Safety Board, the Council is addressing the concerns of employees and former employees and ensuring that records are kept securely for future reference. As you will be aware, the diseases that arise from inhalation of asbestos fibres typically only become symptomatic many years after the original exposure and so record keeping is of vital importance. Mr Esom has instructed that the corporate Health & Safety team under my management, working with the Insurance section, will deal with any individual concerns from any individuals who consider they have been exposed.

In summary, whilst it is the reality of almost all buildings over a certain age will contain asbestos and this includes a large number of Council buildings, the Council has addressed the serious concerns that led to the prosecution and continues to address any ongoing risks in its corporate property stock.

You will be aware that all of these remedial actions have taken place whilst Mr Esom has been Chief Executive.

I hope this clarifies matters for you. Please address any further concerns about health and safety and asbestos related matters to me directly so we can ensure a speedy response.

Yours sincerely,

Daniel Fenwick
Director of Governance’


27 February 2015

‘Dear Mr. Esom,

Thank you for your e-mail.

We are not interested in a reply from Mr. Fenwick, because we have raised no question that has anything to do with him.

Our e-mail concerns you.

In particular, it concerns your decision, while both Chief Executive of the Council and director of NPS Ltd, to set up a system of reporting between the two organisations that was not committed to paper; that, as the evidence shows, caused considerable confusion about responsibilities; and that, as a consequence may well be held to be a one of the prime factors that precipitated LBWF being found guilty of four serious breaches of the health and safety legislation, with all the financial and human costs which are implied.

We believe that in making such a decision, which was clearly conscious and deliberate (you stated as such), your judgement significantly erred, and you should resign.

If you believe differently, please will you explain why and – given that we raised this matter with you a month ago – do so by return?

Yours sincerely,

Trevor Calver and Nick Tiratsoo’


27 February 2015

‘Dear Mr Tiratsoo

Thank you for your email.

Apologies for the delay, our reply will come from Daniel Fenwick our Director of Governance who has corporate responsibility for health and safety.

Yours sincerely

Martin Esom
Chief Executive’


27 February 2015

‘Dear Mr. Esom,

We wrote you the e-mail attached exactly one month ago.

So far, you have not even acknowledged it, let alone answered.

The issues that we raise are serious ones, and relate to your suitability to remain Chief Executive in the context of the Town Hall asbestos court decision.

By ignoring these issues, you give the impression that you are beyond questioning, hardly compatible with either the seven principles of public life that you are supposed to uphold, or indeed the general tenets of our democratic system.

Of course, you are also bound by the Council’s Residents First Charter (‘We will provide a full response to all e-mails or web requests within 5 working days’), though as we know from past experience, you appear to believe the conceit that this applies to your staff but not yourself.

We hope that you will now respond forthwith, but we also give you warning that should you continue with your current stance, we will vigorously take up the issues elsewhere, and in doing so seek maximum publicity for your own documented disdain.

Yours sincerely,

Trevor Calver and Nick Tiratsoo’


27 January 2015

‘Dear Mr. Esom,

In November 2012, we wrote to you about the potential conflict of interest inherent in concurrently you being chief executive of LBWF and board member of NPS London Ltd..

You told us that you understood the risks, and had taken steps to mitigate them, explaining: ‘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 fulfil that task in the best interests of the local authority. She reports to a variety of Cabinet Members directly on the performance of NPS’.

Subsequently, in January 2013, we asked to see copies of the reports regarding LBWF-NPS London Ltd working arrangements that Ms. Mustafa had – as you indicated – produced for Cabinet members in 2011 and 2012, and were told that they were ‘verbal and therefore no formal paper reports exist’ (FIA, 2012/0874).

In relation to this admission, we note that:

(a) the Independent Panel report of 2009, which the Council accepted in its entirety, found that ‘Informal briefings appear to have replaced reports to Cabinet’, and warned that this practice was unacceptable and must cease forthwith;

(b) each year for sometime, LBWF has done millions of pounds of business with NPS London Ltd.;

(c) in 2012, you regarded NPS London Ltd as ‘our advisors on asbestos matters’;

(d) during its voluminous correspondence with us in 2012, LBWF showed marked confusion about highly important issues, and, for example, was unable to date when it had received the key GBNS reports on asbestos in the Town Hall;

(e) on 19th January 2015, LBWF was found guilty on four counts concerning asbestos in the Town Hall under health and safety legislation, with the judge referring sentencing to a higher court in recognition of the severity of the offenses; and

(f) according to the Waltham Forest Guardian, NPS London Ltd. now claims it has had ‘“nothing to do”’ with the asbestos issue in the Town Hall, thus explicitly contradicting your own earlier claim.

Against this background, the system of verbal reporting that you instituted seems to us to have been a significant misjudgment, which very likely will impose serious financial and human costs for years to come.

Taking these various facts together, we believe that you have failed in your fundamental duty of care to staff, their families, and members of the public, and accordingly should resign as chief executive of LBWF forthwith.

We look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Trevor Calver and Nick Tiratsoo’