St. Mary’s Primary School, Walthamstow, and asbestos: the final verdict (1)

The Waltham Forest Guardian‘s Tom Barnes has just filed an online story reporting that, following a prosecution brought by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE),  Balfour Beatty Regional Construction, NPS London Ltd., and Squibb Group Ltd. today have been fined in all over £1m. for breaking various safety regulations in connection with the removal of asbestos at St Mary’s Church of England Primary School in Walthamstow during 2012.

I first found out about events at St Mary’s when I was investigating the fiasco surrounding the treatment of asbestos in the Town Hall (see references appended), and was particularly appalled by the stark contents of the various reports that I obtained, and the closeness that clearly existed between LBWF and its advisor regarding all asbestos matters, NPS London Ltd. (for which see further below).

Accordingly, on 14 November 2012, I made a formal complaint to the HSE about the events at St. Mary’s, and two years later (as the Town Hall saga reached its crescendo) posted a related piece on this blog.

Some of what I wrote then forms an interesting backdrop to today’s verdict:

‘More recently, NPS London Ltd (NPSL) and LBWF have commissioned their own investigations into events at St. Mary’s School, Walthamstow, and these merit some scrutiny.

What has emerged is that in 2011 and 2012, the school was subject to phased refurbishment works, and early on, a specialist contractor was employed to remove asbestos. Subsequently work proceeded. But in July 2012, further asbestos containing materials were discovered, some in the form of sprayed coating, some in the form of debris, and work on the site was halted, with an HSE inquiry said to be proceeding.

Investigation showed that there was significant confusion about the different asbestos surveys that had been completed on the building prior to the refurbishment programme commencing, and even whether or not there was a comprehensive management plan in place. The acting head teacher stated in interviews that when St. Mary’s took possession of the school as tenant of LBWF, a request had been made for relevant health and safety information, but the response was “piecemeal” and in particular “there was no coherent handover” relating to of asbestos’ (AEC, ‘Report on the History of Events and Potential Risk of Exposure to Asbestos at St. Mary’s School Walthamstow’ (NPSL, 2012), p.6). A succession of contractors appeared equally confused.

The upshot was predictable. The investigators concluded that “it is likely that construction workers were exposed to asbestos” (ibid, pp.3 and 9), and to some extent were concerned, too, about the school caretaker and school cleaners. Mercifully, teachers and pupils seemed to have remained untouched, though even here there were worrying caveats:

“There is little concern that staff or pupils have been exposed to asbestos fibre during normal occupancy of the building, as it was reported that no construction or demolition work was permitted in term time. However, major works were carried out before and after school…and the snagging works were carried out when pupils were in the school. The positive sample of asbestos in debris at the bottom of the stairwell …has raised concern amongst staff that asbestos has been ‘walked’ down stairs on boots etc., and could have occurred during the 2011 works” (AEC Ltd, “Independent Report on the Potential Risk of Exposure to Asbestos during Refurbishment Works in 2011 at St Mary’s School Walthamstow” (NPSL, 2013), p.15)’.

I ended the piece by remarking ‘The obvious question, again, is: how could all this have been allowed to happen?’, and regrettably to this day that question has not been answered.

What can be said is that:

(a) LBWF and NPS London Ltd. had a very close relationship during the years in question;

(b) the Labour councillors who have served on the NPS London Ltd. Board include such senior figures as Chris Robbins (2007-09), Terry Wheeler (2009-11), Afzal Akram (2010-12), Mark Rusling (2012-14), and Clare Coghill (2014-17);

(c) LBWF CEO Martin Esom, salary c. £200,000 p.a, was an NPS London Ltd director during two periods, 2007-08 and 2010-14; and

(d) the oversight which LBWF exercised in relation to NPS London Ltd. was decidedly murky, as I have also previously described:

‘[Another] 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 [Town Hall] GBNS [asbestos] 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’.

A final, and very poignant, note. One of the reports into St. Mary’s includes the following:

Screen Shot 2017-07-26 at 17.27.20

That a Labour council should preside over this abomination says everything that needs to said about just how far that once stout defender of ordinary working people has now fallen.


Related Posts

Asbestos matters again: St. Mary’s School, Walthamstow

Asbestos matters: the Waltham Forest Town Hall fiasco

Asbestos matters: John Cryer MP keeps stum, too

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

LBWF and the Town Hall asbestos scandal: new evidence emerges

LBWF Chief Executive Martin Esom and asbestos: the silence continues

LBWF Chief Executive Martin Esom’s evidence at the Town Hall asbestos trial: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

Private Eye reports the Town Hall asbestos scandal