Will planning reform put more people at risk from asbestos?

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There have been lots of concerns raised in the national press recently about new planning reforms which mean a wider range of commercial properties can now be converted into flats.

The reforms came into force at the beginning of this month in a bid to regenerate city centres which have struggled during the pandemic.

However, major insurance groups and leading building experts have raised concerns that the reforms could lead to the creation of poor quality homes which may be vulnerable to overheating in the summer and could put lives at risk.

The warnings come on the back of last year’s heatwaves in England which caused 2,556 deaths and the Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent body which advises the Government, has predicted such numbers could triple from an average of 2,000 to 7,000 deaths a year by 2050.

This issue should be on the radar of planning authorities, developers and homeowners but we feel that these reforms could have another huge impact which so far seems to be being overlooked.

The reality is that many of the units that are now fair game for developers who want to turn them into flats are likely to contain asbestos.

During the second half of the 20th century around six million tonnes of raw asbestos fibre was imported to our shores because it was used heavily by our construction industry.

Asbestos was in many of the common materials used by our building trade and as a result can be found in a wide variety of locations in both commercial and domestic properties. To see for yourself some of the most popular places that asbestos can still be found lurking in industrial and residential properties visit the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) website.

As a result of asbestos’ widespread usage, some legal experts suggest that 50% of UK buildings constructed before 1999 may still contain asbestos in one form or another today.

Why could this reform put homeowners at risk from asbestos?

The danger with converting more commercial properties into homes is that this type of work is very disruptive to the fabric of the building. If the building contains asbestos it is highly likely that it will be disturbed – potentially putting lives at risk – unless the developer has an Asbestos Refurbishment Survey carried out prior to any work starting on site.

If an Asbestos Refurbishment Survey is carried out before work starts, it will locate and describe, as far as possible, all asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) within the building. By their nature, these types of asbestos surveys are intrusive and, to a degree, destructive. For example, it is important to know what the insulation materials are in a wall cavity. However, it is imperative that this survey is carried out to ensure the safety of anyone working on, or visiting, the development.

In our business we work with lots of incredibly responsible construction firms every day however you only need to take a quick look at the latest prosecutions carried out by the HSE to see that sadly there are plenty of builders out there who are willing to cut corners to save time or money. Our fear is that for some developers the temptation to leave large amounts of asbestos in converted properties will be too great and the danger then is it may potentially be disturbed by homeowners in the future.

You may remember that not so long ago we shared a report of a court case which revealed that a homeowner had to leave their home and live in a hotel for 11 months after a garage door installation company failed to manage asbestos safely during works at the homeowner’s property.

This gives you an idea of the kind of disruption that you can face as a homeowner if asbestos is disturbed at your property.

As upsetting as this story is, what is even worse is the danger that asbestos poses to people’s health if it is not managed correctly and is disturbed. Sadly, on average more than 2,000 people die every year in Great Britain as a result of asbestos-related cancers.

According to the HSE’s Mesothelioma statistics for Great Britain, 2021 report there were 2,369 mesothelioma deaths in Great Britain in 2019. Men who worked in the building industry when asbestos was used extensively between 1950 and 1980 continue to be most at risk of mesothelioma. This is because this particular form of cancer takes many years to develop following the inhalation of asbestos fibres, Tragically, once symptoms appear it is usually rapidly fatal – often within 12 months.

We’re hoping that in the coming years the number of annual deaths from asbestos-related diseases will start to fall year on year as people become more educated about the dangers the material poses. The last thing anyone wants is for well-meaning planning reforms – designed to breathe life into cities – to bring about a new wave of asbestos-related deaths.

We hope planning authorities will require developers to undertake Asbestos Refurbishment Surveys before work on conversions begin to protect both those working on site and those who will one day move into the newly created homes.

Acorn is a professional asbestos consultancy helping organisations deal with asbestos compliance using asbestos surveysasbestos air testing, and asbestos removal management. Please call one of the team, or use the online form to obtain your free quotation. If you would like further information or advice on asbestos and asbestos training, contact the team on 0844 818 0895 or Contact Us

Ian Stone

I am based out of our Northampton office but regularly travel to meet with new and existing clients. I have assisted thousands of clients over the years on varying-sized projects, several have been schemes totalling over one million pounds spent purely on asbestos. Together with Neil Munro, I host our weekly podcast – Asbestos Knowledge Empire and I am Co-author of Asbestos The Dark Arts and Fear and Loathing of Health and Safety.

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