Fresh concerns over Waltham Town Hall asbestos safety plan

Waltham Forest Council’s failure to update its asbestos safety plan for nine years was not a criminal offence, an internal investigation has concluded.

The investigation was launched after resident Nick Tiratsoo studied whether the council had breached asbestos safety laws at the town hall and published his findings on his blog Waltham Forest Matters.

A historic failure to safely manage asbestos at the town hall has previously led to payouts to former workers who were exposed and the council’s criminal conviction for breaching asbestos regulations in 2015.

Last year, Mr Tiratsoo prompted an internal council investigation after raising fresh concerns that the council’s asbestos management plan had not been updated or signed off since 2013.

The council’s chief legal officer Mark Hynes, who led the investigation, has found that a breach of the law “cannot be established”.

In a report published on Monday July 18, Mr Hynes said the council had a “comprehensive” record on a computer system called Concerto showing that asbestos in the town hall has been “proactively managed” by annual inspections.

As a result, the corporate director of governance and law concluded, the council’s failure to keep an up-to-date asbestos management plan was “at worst a minor administrative failure”.

Mr Hynes said no one in the council’s property services team had updated or signed off the asbestos management plan for nine years because of a “significant churn in staff with difficulties in recruiting interims”.

He also added that “no one was using” a red box on Concerto that is meant to flag to staff that safety documentation needs to be reviewed or updated.

Mr Tiratsoo, who first alerted the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to the town hall’s poorly managed asbestos in 2012, said he still has questions about the issue.

He told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS): “It is appalling that, in the five years after its 2015 conviction for exposing town hall workers and contractors to dangerous asbestos dust, the council remained so slipshod about record keeping, and still can’t produce key documents, for example, the work permits that had to be completed before any asbestos removal could start.

“As for Mr Hynes’ latest wheeze, Concerto, in a voluminous correspondence with me lasting eleven months, he never mentioned it once. Strange that.”

As Waltham Forest’s senior lawyer, known as a monitoring officer, the purpose of Mr Hynes’ investigation was to decide whether he should formally report that the council had broken the law.

He was assisted on “technical legal matters” by Clyde & Co, a firm specialising in defending occupational disease claims and barrister Richard Matthews KC, who defended the council during its prosecution in 2015.

As well as concluding there was no legal breach, Mr Hynes said the council has also carried out several remedial actions including creating one asbestos management plan “covering all council buildings”.

Other actions include hiring two new compliance assurance staff, “properly” implementing Concerto and briefing building managers on asbestos and the importance of training about its awareness.

Council chief executive Martin Esom, who spent his early career as an environmental health officer, also signed off the asbestos management plan in November 2022.

HSE has told the LDRS that it was not aware of or involved in the council’s internal investigation.

In 2017, two years after the HSE prosecution of Waltham Forest Council concluded, Mr Esom became one of the regulator’s non-executive directors.

A council spokesperson said: “The report concluded that no breaches of health and safety law had occurred during the period.

“An in-depth survey to identify where the removal of asbestos was required was undertaken before the refurbishment of Town Hall in 2020.

“Significant work has since taken place in line with HSE guidance.

“Access to areas undergoing work was restricted, with strict controls in place at all times.

“The current town hall meets all asbestos management standards and is safe for staff and visitors alike.”

Josh Mellor

Local Democracy Reporter