Waltham Forest Council accused of dragging its heels over asbestos danger in town hall

Trade unionists claim they warned of deadly asbestos in Waltham Forest Town Hall “over a very long period” before the council took action.

Waltham Forest Trades Council (WFTC) has come forward to criticise the council over its historical handling of asbestos safety, following news of the death of a former employee who contracted an asbestos-linked cancer.

Local union representatives say they “pushed” the council to take action on asbestos safety in buildings such as the town hall, which were known to be dangerous, from the 1980s.

In 2015, Waltham Forest Council was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for health and safety breaches related to its knowledge of “widespread” contamination in the town hall basement since 1984.

In a statement published last week, WFTC said: “Much, if not all of this could have been prevented if [Waltham Forest] had listened to local trade union reps who, over a very long period, pushed them for action on asbestos.

“Whilst the legal duty on employers to manage asbestos risks safely didn’t arise until the late 1990s, trade unionists were pushing employers to do this long before the regulations were placed in parliament and saw increased activity on the issue in the run-in to the regulations being adopted.

“The regulations made inaction on asbestos management less likely but many authorities and employers had to be pushed into action, as happened in [Waltham Forest].”

Court documents uncovered by the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) last month show that in 2020 one former Town Hall worker was paid £265,000 in compensation due to asbestos exposure.

In total, the council has paid £588,000 in compensation to four former workers who were exposed, in addition to unknown additional medical and legal costs .

A Waltham Forest spokesperson said: “We understand the concerns of staff and residents – we want to be clear that we take their safety and wellbeing extremely seriously and that the current building is safe to work in and visit.

“Extensive asbestos removal from the Town Hall has been undertaken over 20 years to ensure the building has been kept compliant with legislation.

“Asbestos is present in many 20th century buildings and significant measures can be taken to ensure this doesn’t pose a harm.”

Prosecutor and defendant

The WFTC also called it a “macabre irony” that chief executive Martin Esom has been a non-executive board member of HSE since 2017, two years after the council admitted criminal liability for health and safety failings.

Esom has worked as an environmental health worker for London Councils since the late 1980s and became chief executive of Waltham Forest Council in 2010.

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which is responsible for HSE, said Martin Esom was appointed following a process “in line” with the Governance Code on Public Appointments.

When asked whether the DWP took into account his role at the council during its prosecution for health and safety breaches, their spokesperson said “we do not hold specific information”.

Mr Esom, who earned £206,956 in 2020/21 as the council’s chief executive, splits his time between the council and HSE.

According to a freedom of information response, between April 2021 and March 2022 the chief executive spent 29 days working for HSE – which HSE paid the council £15,100 for.

A Waltham Forest spokesperson commented: “Being able to share experiences with and learn from other leaders across a range of industries delivers important benefits for Waltham Forest Council and other public sector bodies, as well as for staff and members of the public.

“Martin Esom receives no financial benefit from his position on the HSE board, and the council receives compensation for the time spent contributing toward the HSE’s work.”

When asked for examples of the important benefits Mr Esom’s experience at HSE brings, the council did not respond.

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Josh Mellor

Local Democracy Reporter