Fair takes your breath away: Asbestos and Whitehall Park School.
Part one of two
"A five-year-old is five times more likely than an adult of 30 to develop mesothelioma, a type of cancer linked to asbestos, if they are exposed to it at the same time."
There is no "safe" level of exposure to asbestos fibres. They are a serious health risk. The worst outcome is a cancer of the lungs, Mesothelioma. Survival times are poor.
Typically it takes 25 to 30 years for disease (Mesothelioma) to appear. Because of this, the Health and Safety Executive recommends no one under 55 should be employed in asbestos stripping. Exposing children to asbestos fibres is very serious.
The demolition of the old Ashmount School building therefore presented a safety challenge. A building "riddled" with asbestos being demolished while children were taught on the same site. This post is an account of attempts to get assurance that this challenge was properly met.
I have blogged about Whitehall Park School before. Readers should also know that I am the former chair of governors of Ashmount School and remain on the governing body although I write these blogs in a personal capacity. I also live very close to the old Ashmount site now occupied by Whitehall Park School.
Although many find it difficult to credit, the story is in essence simple. Ashmount is a Primary School in Islington. The school occupied a building built in 1957, in what was then seen as a very advanced style.
In an earlier post I described Ashmount as:
"A good school in a terrible building. An early example of modernism... clad entirely in glass, very cold in winter - the most expensive school of its size to heat in London - and very hot in summer, and now wearing out and falling apart."
Islington Council worked with Ashmount to solve the problem of the building. In the end Council and Governors decided to move Ashmount School a short distance - ten minutes walk - to a new building in place of a former community centre. It was part of a project to improve and re instate a public park. (The "Crouch Hill Project") Ashmount School moved to the completed new building in January 2013. Footnote 1
Financing the Crouch Hill project included the council selling the vacated site to be used by a Housing Association for social housing. The Housing Association would pay for the site but they would get a steep discount, in return for Islington being able to nominate the tenants.
However, when Ashmount moved, the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, used powers granted to him by the 2010 Act to requisition the vacant site without payment to the Council and use it for a Free School, now called Whitehall Park School. The site was taken, and transferred from public to private hands despite the fact that (as confirmed by the planning inspector) there was no shortage of school places in the area and all the schools in the area were either "Good" or "Outstanding". No charge for the site was made to the private company taking it over, who thereby acquired the land on a 125-year lease, on a “peppercorn rent” (usually one pound a year). Footnote 2
The Free School was announced as a proposal put forward by Bellevue Education Ltd, owners of a number of for-profit, fee paying schools. The company promised to combine the "best of the private sector with the best of the public sector”.
For a typical press report at the time, see here.
Bellevue Education enlisted the support of Place Group Ltd, an educational consultancy with a business providing paid for services and advice to founders of Free Schools. Bellevue would have found this support useful as they did not have experience of setting up new schools, all its schools having been bought as ‘going concerns’ using money supplied by their investors. Nor did they have experience of running state schools. (Thanks to the Panama Papers we know more than we did, or Bellevue Education wished to tell us at the time, about whom these investors actually are.)
The two companies formalised their collaboration by setting up a joint enterprise to carry the Free Schools business forward. This joint enterprise is a legally separate entity "Bellevue Place Educational Trust". BPET is a "non profit" entity, wholly funded by the taxpayer, controlled by the two founding companies. It is BPET that runs the Free Schools and to which the land is transferred. The Trust now has a portfolio of seven Free Schools. (Footnote 3) BPET has recently sought to distance itself from Bellevue Education Ltd. given the revelations in the Panama papers regarding Bellevue funding The NUT has called for an inquiry into this relationship. See here.
However, majority control of BPET's governing membership remains vested in Bellevue Education Ltd, and BPET continues to buy services from Bellevue Education Ltd as well as Place Group Ltd. So for both these companies BPET is a useful source of revenue made all the more useful as they control BPET and so its spending decisions. Please note there is nothing illegal in any of this. Footnote 4
When Bellevue arrived on the scene they held two "public consultations" which amounted actually to sales presentations - awkward questions were not entertained kindly.
The Chief Executive of Bellevue Education Ltd, Mark Malley, led the first “consultation”. He assured prospective parents that the timetable for establishing the new school while challenging was realistic. All that had to be done was fix up the existing school building which would be ready for children to occupy in September 2014. However at the time he spoke, he may not have been fully informed.
There was press coverage of the situation in the Evening Standard on the 24 th February 2014 : In which the reporter wrote about the "asbestos riddled" building:
"Surprisingly, before submitting its application, no one from Bellevue had visited the old Ashmount site other than to walk around the perimeter; and certainly no one had seen inside the building. Neither had anyone from the DfE inspected the premises before giving it the go-ahead.”
And went on to write:
“The department is now thought to be recommending complete demolition and rebuilding, likely to cost up to £15 million and taking at least a year to complete."
Indeed there was a LOT of asbestos in the old Ashmount Building.
As one web site about the dangers of asbestos explains:
"Why asbestos? Simple: It was cheap, durable, flexible and naturally acted as an insulating and fireproofing agent. The construction and manufacturing industries fell in love with its potential and used asbestos-containing products whenever possible."
When the old Ashmount building was in use, care was taken to ensure it was safe for children, teachers, support staff and volunteers.
"Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and other experts advise that provided asbestos containing materials (ACMs) remain undamaged it is safest to manage them in situ. ….because removal greatly increases the risk that asbestos fibres are released in to the air and of small quantities of damaged asbestos remaining after removal"
So Ashmount Governors were careful to leave the asbestos undisturbed. The air was regularly checked for fibres by specialist staff from Islington Council. Fortunately no release of asbestos was ever detected. Had it been the school would have been closed at once for decontamination which is the accepted course of action. A local school had to do this on 2010.
In another recent case children had to be moved to another site altogther.
ASBESTOS AND THE DECISION TO MOVE THE SCHOOL
The asbestos issue was a big part of the reason why Ashmount School moved. Moving was not the Council's first choice, (not that is, until it became apparent there was somewhere to move to). Instead they planned the phased demolition of the old building and rebuilding on the same site. However the serious disadvantage with this approach was the asbestos. Demolition would by definition disturb it. Really disturb it. This meant that the demolition work could only be done during the summer holidays, and it was expected that the work of demolition and rebuild would take at least three years.
It was also expected that parents on knowing of the work, hearing of the asbestos and despite all the precautions would likely be unwilling to send their little children and so for three years it was planned to have no Reception intake.
These problems made moving Ashmount School to a new site at Crouch Hill (despite the many difficulties associated with the new site) preferable.
BUILDING WHITEHALL PARK SCHOOL
One might have thought that when the promoters of Whitehall Park School changed their minds and decided to demolish rather than refurbish, it would be easier to do before children arrived. The demolition site could be sealed and the asbestos hazard dealt with in the most effective way. It would have meant much better conditions for children and staff from the outset, as they would be moving into a brand new asbestos-free building. It would have been cheaper. And it would be easier to recruit children to a completed new building. So obviously (one would have thought again), the opening of the new school should have been delayed until the new building ready.
Instead portocabins were craned in to occupy the old school playground beside the old building. Why the rush? In the absence of pupil demand that could not be accommodated elsewhere, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that this was about creating a "fact on the ground" before the general election of 2015. An election the Government might not win. Moreover the Labour shadow Minister for Education, Tristram Hunt, had stated that any Free School already in existence at the time of the election would not be closed by a future Labour Government, so all the more incentive to “open “ as many as possible before the election.
DEMOLISHING THE OLD ASHMOUNT BESIDE THE PORTOCABINS
So there was a new plan by the promoters of Whitehall Park to demolish the old, asbestos-ridden building. Not surprisingly, the original application for planning permission for the work stated it was intended to have the builders carry out the demolition over a summer vacation. Clearly that would be a good way to manage the asbestos hazard and actually better than a phased demolition and rebuild would have been.
However at this point a pattern began to emerge. Repeated announcements of dates by which the new building would be ready. These announcements promised parents that they would have a new building within a few months. They would usually be made while parents were considering which schools to apply for. This would be followed by an admission, usually just after the closing date for applications (so too late for parents to alter their preferences), that actually there would be a further delay. I hope it is not a plot spoiler to say that the latest announcement is of a likely further delay. No new building this autumn 2016 either. In the meantime, the children, more of them each year, are housed in portocabins on a site which becomes more congested and on which building operations will continue for some time. Of course the cost increases also.
PRESSURE TO FINISH THE JOB
Repeated undertakings on behalf of the school that turn out to be inaccurate damages credibility. There is therefore an entirely understandable pressure on the promoters to actually get a building delivered. When demolition started after the long and not fully explained delay, it started during term time.
I do not say that demolishing during term with children's classrooms within a few yards of the work and children playing on a playspace also within a few yards of the work was unsafe. Just that doing it without the children there would have been safer. As well as easier for the contractor.
There is a legal requirement that building must be done in accordance with the "building regulations" These ensure both that what is built is safe, and that if demolition is required this is done in a safe manner. The body which ensures building regulations are observed, is called "Building Control"
Each London Borough has its own Building Control department. When the demolition started there were aspects of it that concerned me as a local resident. In particular there seemed to me to be quite a lot of dust about. Of course I had no way of knowing what was in it, so naturally I got in touch with building control.
I knew about building control because of the Crouch Hill project to build the new Ashmount building on its new site. Islington's Building Control closely supervised the work and, for example, insisted that certain very strict measures be taken to ensure fire safety - restrictions on where children could hang their coats that sort of thing. (Ironically perhaps, some of the steps we had to take to fire proof were required by there being no asbestos in the new Ashmount building at all...).
However these days a contractor is NOT obliged to use the Local Authority Building Control, although for a number of good reasons almost all contractors in Islington do. Due to a change in the law, the promoters could, if they choose, appoint their own building control, which they have done. So in fact Islington Building Control was absolutely powerless to help and referred me to the promoters. I contacted the Health and Safety Executive - same answer.
But the promoters do not reply to me. So I reached a dead end, and to be quite honest lost heart. It seemed to me that we were once again in a situation where accountability mechanisms that used to exist, and often still do exist so far as community schools are concerned, are just not there when it comes to Academies and Free Schools. So the point this story makes is that information that can be obtained about a community school by lifting the phone to the Council, can be in practice unobtainable for a Free School or Academy, and there seems to be nothing really to do about it if they don't feel like responding.
While, even to a non-expert like myself, it was clear that demolishing a building full of asbestos on a site occupied by children during term time MUST present a risk, there was no reason to suppose the risk was not being effectively managed within the law. Even if doing it WITHOUT children on site must surely have been better.
And there it would have rested but for a further interesting development….
For a description of the Crouch Hill Project as planned see here.
...and the new Ashmount building won a prize...
I understand 125 years to be the usual length of lease in cases like this. The significance of the lease is that a Free School or Academy Trust with public land transferred to it is not the freeholder. So for example, if it was freehold they could choose to sell a bit of it if they no longer needed it, as its leasehold they can only sell it with the consent of the Secretary of State. (That is one of the conditions of the lease). This technical difference allows pro Free School commentators to contradict anyone who complains of public land being transferred without charge into private hands, by pointing out they don’t have the "Freehold" so they don’t "really" own it. And then the argument gets involved in all the technicalities of land law. "disappointed idealist" put it very well in his blog:
"I’m deliberately not going deep into asset disposal and land ownership precisely because as soon as anyone tries to go there, others turn up saying the opposite, and I do not have the expertise to be able to comment with confidence on this very complex issue."
It’s a remark he makes as a comment to his post here which I recommend.
The Free Schools run by Bellevue Place are Rutherford House School, Braywick Court School, Whitehall Park Primary School, Kilburn Grange School, Halley House School, Deer Park School, and Watling Park School.
For example there was an item in the Guardian about the relationship between Place Group and BPET. In which they wrote:
"the 2015 accounts of an organisation that runs seven free schools, the London-based Bellevue Place Education Trust (BPET)... lists payments of £206,258 to enable a private consultancy called Place Group to set up four of those free schools in 2014-15..... "