Explainer: the current Waltham Forest Town Hall asbestos scandal in ten bite-sized chunks

1. In 2022, I discovered that a specialist firm, commissioned on behalf of LBWF, had surveyed the Town Hall two years previously, and found that asbestos was present throughout but especially in the basement, with some of this asbestos defined as ‘high risk’, for example in the form of dust.

2. I further discovered that contractors had worked in the basement on three separate occasions between 2015 and 2021; and that LBWF could not produce all the associated paperwork as demanded by the key piece of legislation, the Asbestos Regulations 2012.

3. Accordingly, on 1 September 2022, I requested that LBWF monitoring officer Mark Hynes consider my evidence, and on 27 October 2022, he told me that ‘the Council takes the matter you have raised…very seriously’ and added that he was now going to lead an internal investigation, involving liaison with ‘a number of officers, former employees of the Council and other third parties’, ‘covering a significant period of time since 2013’, and taking ‘a number of months to complete’.

4. Though I pointed out that, by adopting this course of action, LBWF appeared to be ‘marking its own homework’, and urged that the investigation be truly independent, LBWF and in particular its Leader, Cllr. Grace Williams, resolutely refused to budge.

5. Subsequently it has emerged that (a) the investigation underway has no terms of reference; (b) Mr. Hynes is being ‘supported’ by both ‘leading global law firm’ Clyde & Co. LLP and ‘expert’ counsel (thought to be the KC who defended LBWF when it was successfully prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) over Town Hall asbestos in 2015); and (c) Mr. Hynes does not anticipate releasing the conclusions of his investigation until ‘around June 2023’, that is eight months or more after he commenced work.

6. Throughout, LBWF has attempted to deter me, threatening me with its Unreasonable Behaviour policy (to Private Eye’s amusement), stating that I am ‘obsessive’, alleging that I am ‘targeting’ senior officers such as CEO Martin Esom (though he is the named asbestos Statutory Duty Holder!), and describing my use of the Freedom of Information Act as ‘unreasonable and vexatious’ – some neck, given that, until I started asking questions, LBWF had done absolutely nothing about what it now admits are serious issues, indeed issues which are so serious that they merit eight month’s worth of investigation.

7. Anyway, my research continues to uncover disturbing details. For example, it has emerged that in 2020 a Town Hall employee contacted the HSE to report that dust was being blown out of the basement, where contractors were at work, into the upper floors of the building, repeatedly setting off the fire alarms, but when a HSE inspector then attended, LBWF’s Head of Health and Safety reassured him that ‘the basement was fully stripped of Asbestos several years ago’, something that (to put it politely) is strikingly at odds with the findings of the 2020 specialist survey already referred to, together with a string of its predecessors. 

8. What does all of this add up to? LBWF’s internal investigation is costing a lot of public money (Clyde & Co. LLP and the KC do not come cheap), and of course had LBWF lived up to its obligations in the first place, this could have been used on something more beneficial.

9. In addition, whether Mr. Hynes will deliver a report that fully addresses what’s happened is debatable, because it seems at least possible that, in reality, his investigation may have at least one eye on satisfying LBWF’s insurer, in other words fending off future compensation claims.

10. Behind all of this are two other worrying facts. LBWF is rated the sixth most complained about council in England. And it also has a poor record specifically in relation to asbestos, illustrated (amongst other things) by the following:

  • in 2015, the trial judge, when summing up, underlined the chilling truth that ‘In this case there is no doubt that employees and contractors [at the Town Hall] were exposed to asbestos as a result of the failings of the authority which posed them serious health risks’; 
  • in 2017, a second HSE prosecution resulted in a company that was part owned by LBWF, and described as its ‘asbestos advisor’, being found guilty over the handling of asbestos at St. Mary’s, a Walthamstow primary school; and
  • in 2022, an ex-employee with asbestosis won compensation from LBWF (and/or its insurer) worth several hundred thousand pounds.

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