Departing LBWF CEO Martin Esom: 13 years in the job, £2.6m. salary in the bank, a few highs, but also some very unattractive lows

In December 2022, LBWF announced that its CEO, Martin Esom, would be leaving the Town Hall at the end of 2023, but subsequently, and without explanation, his departure date was brought forward to the last day of July just past, when he took up a position at the Sports Grounds Safety Authority.

Accordingly, it’s a good time to evaluate what Mr. Esom has achieved in his near 13 years at the helm. Has he helped change the council, and Waltham Forest, for the better?

It is certainly true that he has led the borough through an unusually volatile period, with budget cuts, Islamist terrorism, COVID, significant amounts of fresh legislation, and so on, each offering their own challenges.

And it’s also true that, despite these seemingly unpromising circumstances, he has overseen, for better or worse, the introduction of a gang prevention programme; a revamped leisure centre offer; Mini-Holland and then the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods; grand partnerships with big private sector housing developers; the ongoing reconstruction of the Walthamstow Mall; and the year-long Borough of Culture celebration.

Moreover, all this has been achieved without (at least as far as is currently known) overstretching the council’s finances, notable in itself, especially given the calamities elsewhere. 

Hence, it is not difficult to see why the tributes of colleagues and local politicians tend to the fulsome. In a world of flux, Mr. Esom has offered a welcome impression of business as usual.

However, delving a little deeper reveals that these upsides tell only part of the story.

First, though background events were indisputably challenging, Mr. Esom also enjoyed some substantive advantages. He was certainly handsomely rewarded, earning c. £200,000 a year, getting on for three times the salary of the Prime Minister. He received the unanimous support of local politicians on all sides, with Labour considering him ‘their man’, and the Tory opposition fearing that an alternative appointment might diminish their Town Hall standing. And, with the trade unions marginalised, he was able to slim down the LBWF workforce considerably, including by large scale redundancies, thus reducing costs.

In addition, Mr. Esom’s record in office was far from unblemished, as what follows amply demonstrates.

Submission to the property developers’ embrace

From around 2010, big national property developers began to become ever more interested in Waltham Forest, as the young and affluent were priced out of surrounding boroughs.

Mr. Esom responded excitedly, in 2015 telling Invest Waltham Forest, LBWF’s bespoke magazine for property developers: ‘This is our moment in terms of the values going up and the interest being there…We estimate the total value of development opportunity as £1 billion by 2018’.

There followed a private sector housing boom, accompanied by substantial council infrastructure expenditure aimed at attracting prospective buyers – £600,000 lavished on the Walthamstow ‘beer mile’, £100,000 on ‘a conversation’ between seven floodlit buildings often miles apart (yes, you read that correctly) and so on.

Friends of Mr. Esom would no doubt argue that this increased the local council tax base, important in an age of austerity. But there were also significant negatives, because in all the excitement of being assiduously courted and flattered by developers, LBWF appeared forgetful of both its own tenants and poorer residents in general. 

There was less and less emphasis on the requirement that new developments should always provide a modicum of truly affordable housing; a long running controversy about counterfeit fire doors and structural weaknesses in council owned tower blocks; the sudden unveiling of a £40m. plus programme to make all LBWF housing safer, begging questions about why such action had not been taken before; and, in some cases, grossly inadequate consultation, which left the planned upgrade of estates mired in acrimony.

In other words, over time LBWF seemed to have lost the sense that it is there for everybody, not just the affluent.


LBWF first found out it had an asbestos problem across all floors of the Town Hall in 1998.

Subsequently, survey after survey provided further confirmation, with that in 2012, for example, finding that the basement was marked by ‘large scale…asbestos contamination’, with asbestos ‘dust and debris’ present ‘throughout’.

Three years later, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) successfully prosecuted LBWF for exposing staff and contractors in the Town Hall to asbestos dust which, in the words of the presiding judge ‘“posed them serious health risks”’.

Two years after that, a second HSE prosecution resulted in NPS London Ltd., a company that was part owned by LBWF, and described as its ‘asbestos advisor’, being fined over the 2012 removal of asbestos at St Mary’s Church of England Primary School in Walthamstow.

And finally, in 2022, LBWF was forced to pay out £265,000 plus private medical and legal costs to an ex-Town Hall employee who, in its service, had contracted a cancer linked to inhaling asbestos fibres (his solicitor commenting ‘“I think this is the worst example of neglect of asbestos in a public building that I have seen in 30 years”’).

This discreditable record speaks for itself. Of course, several politicians and officers must share the blame for LBWF’s actions, or lack of them, but as CEO Mr. Esom has been Statutory Duty Holder responsible for LBWF asbestos policy throughout, and so, more than most, is deserving of censure.

Reinforcing this judgement is the fact that whilst Mr. Esom told the court in 2015 that the basement of the Town Hall ‘was not used as a heavily occupied work place, but an infrequently accessed storage area’, the HSE found that ‘employees and contractors’ had been frequenting it ‘regularly’ since 2002 for ‘a variety of purposes including transitory work such as filing and maintenance but also on a more permanent basis’, not least because the Print Room was located there, and it was the latter view that the judge accepted.

Prevent and extremism

In 2018, a Home Office review noted: ‘Waltham Forest is a Prevent Tier 1 priority area and as such receives additional funding from the Home Office to deliver Prevent projects. Tier 1 status is apportioned as Waltham Forest is considered to be of significantly higher risk [of terrorism] than the majority of local authority areas’. 

Between 2012 and 2018, and for reasons that have never been explained, Mr. Esom was chair of the London Prevent Board.

Against this background, it might be expected that LBWF would have an unblemished record when it comes to the activities of Islamists and other related forms of extremism, but unfortunately that turns out not to be true.

Focusing on terrorism, first of all, most of LBWF’s Prevent interventions have been kept under wraps. However, what has become public hardly inspires confidence. On occasion, money has been paid over to supposedly influential partner organisations that then have simply frittered it away. Meanwhile, LBWF itself has been exploited by terrorist sympathisers, as when ‘a room at the council-owned Waltham Forest Community Hub…[was] hired for “ladies tea afternoons” which were a cover for a weekly Isis supporters’ discussion group’.

Turning to the situation in the Town Hall also gives cause for concern. After the 2015 Paris atrocities, one councillor allegedly defended the perpetrators, while others from what the Institute of Community Cohesion called the ‘Muslim block’ were reportedly only interested in pressing for more vigorous action against ‘Islamophobia’. The Sunni Muslim majority’s overt hostility to the Ahmadi Muslim minority, too, has been ever present, and the council’s one time counter-extremism co-ordinator, Charlotte Littlewood, in fact departed largely because senior officers were unwilling to tell councillors and religious elders to desist from such sectarianism.

Nor should it be forgotten that no less a figure than the then Labour Mayor, Cllr. Saima Mahmud, accompanied by current Deputy Leader Ahsan Khan, threw a reception in the Town Hall for far-right Pakistani Senator Sirajul Haq, a man who previously had ranted about ‘Jews’ controlling the UN, the ‘blasphemous acts and conspiracies of Christians and Jews’, and, in relation to proposed laws aimed at protecting women from violence, the West’s ‘agenda to destroy the family system in Pakistan’.

Why stronger action was not taken to curb these various unpleasant manifestations is difficult to fathom, but Mr. Esom’s own views may hold the key. 

For as he told an interviewer in 2019, in his opinion the root causes of terrorism and extremism lay in particular social factors like isolation, poor mental health, and experience of domestic violence, meaning a focus on ideology, whether Islamist or right-wing, religious or political, ‘missed the point’. 

The absurdity on display here is accentuated by the fact that, at around the same time, LBWF Community Safety Group Manager (Strategic) Alastair Macorkindale was telling a scrutiny committee hearing that ‘risk of radicalisation in the borough had been primarily Islamist, but there had been a recent increase in far-right radicalisation’ [emphasis added].

Spin, spin, and more spin

During Mr. Esom’s period in office, LBWF has become increasingly addicted to spin, with the prime objective to present whatever the Town Hall does in the best possible light, negate criticism, and thus (in PR speak) ‘control the narrative’.

To operationalise this strategy, LBWF has assembled a sizeable cohort of press officers and other communications staff, notably more than in neighbouring boroughs, and created multiple ways of messaging, including a newspaper delivered to every door, (originally fortnightly, now quarterly), and a weekly e-mailed newsletter which, it is claimed, attracts an ‘engaged audience’ of c.195,000.

In parallel, some effort has been made to cultivate selected journalists, for example by contracting firms like PA Mediapoint (‘Understand the News, Shape the News, Make the News’) to help them with LBWF related research and stories.

It’s possible, too, that pressure has been exerted behind the scenes.  LBWF has a legal duty to publish various planning notices, and over the past few years has chosen to pay for these to be placed in Newsquest publications, primarily the Guardian Series.  The sums involved here can be substantial: in the period FY 2016/17 to FY 2020/21, LBWF handed Newsquest a princely £265,000.

Whether this has made the latter more pliable in its reporting is unknown, probably unknowable. What can be said is that, with so much money on the line, and Newsquest facing financial difficulties, the pressure to go easy may have been hard to resist.

Accompanying these positive steps to gain influence, LBWF also has tried to fend off criticism. For example, those using the Freedom of Information Act have found their legitimate inquiries thwarted by delays, illegitimate evasions, and ignorance of the legal framework, to the extent that in 2020 the Information Commissioner took the highly unusual step of directly intervening to demand improvement. 

The LBWF service offer  

Given the extent of LBWF spin, it is difficult to assess whether service delivery has been good or bad, a situation that has been further exacerbated by the government’s ongoing reluctance to provide comprehensive local authority league tables.

However, scattered third party evidence is certainly suggestive. In 2022 a survey by, which used official data for the previous half dozen years, revealed that LBWF was the sixth most complained about council in the whole of England. This year, the newly formed Office of Local Government has looked at how councils are faring on adult social care, finance, and waste management, with a total of 18 different metrics tracked, and found that LBWF is performing below the national median in 14 cases, and above it in only four. 

When Mr. Esom became CEO, LBWF was in a mess over both contracting and service delivery, as the Independent Panel report brutally illustrated. Subsequently, there has been some improvement, no doubt. But as the recent data shows, the blunt fact is that LBWF still lags most other councils. In other words, spin is one thing, the lacklustre reality quite another.

Looking back over his time in Waltham Forest, Mr. Esom is reported to have said: “‘It’s been an absolute blast and honour’”.

He may well have had a ‘“blast”’ – on his bloated salary, who wouldn’t?

But whether most residents will evaluate his term of office in similarly warm terms is doubtful.

PS The sources for the above are numerous previous posts, which can be located by using this blog’s search engine.