Landmark High Court decision parallels for Spodden Valley

Date published: 30 July 2009

Speaking to Rochdale Online, campaigners and experts say a landmark High Court decision could have “important parallels” for the future of the former asbestos factory site in Spodden Valley, Rochdale.

Yesterday, Corby Council was liable in negligence, public nuisance and a breach of statutory duty regarding environmental damage caused during the clean up of contaminated land at a steel works in the 1980s.

Experts say the Corby ruling could have huge implications for the actions and responsibilities of Rochdale Council for the Spodden Valley former Turner Brothers Asbestos factory- once the largest factory of its type in the world. A planning application was lodged in December 2004 for 600 homes and community facilities (including a children's nursery) for the 72 acre site. No planning decision has yet been made. The application process was placed on hold by Rochdale Council in early 2005 following widespread public concern.

Environmental pollution has been a problem at the Rochdale factory with acknowledged cases of asbestos related cancer caused by environmental exposure. Campaigners and experts say the parallels with Corby are chilling: Hilda Palmer of the Greater Manchester Hazards Centre expressed her concerns about the long term health effects of exposure to asbestos dust. She explained: “Asbestos is a carcinogen and it causes lung diseases. When asbestos gets into the air and can be inhaled by people it can cause those diseases 10, 20, 50 years down the line. So if there is any development on that site there is a potential for serious lung diseases, cancers and death from that development.”

Save Spodden Valley campaigners and associated experts have been following the progress of the Corby environmental disease litigation for several years. SSV Campaign co-ordinator Jason Addy is currently engaged in PhD research at the Manchester Metropolitan University School of Law.

He explained to Rochdale Online his belief that Rochdale Council has a number of ongoing responsibilities for the former asbestos factory site. These include:

Monitoring site activity and environmental health and contaminated land

The current planing application for an “urban village”

Co-ordination and liaison with other statutory bodies (such as the Environment Agency and Health Protection Agency)

Strategic planning principles for the site's future

The site owners have been clear about their reliance on Rochdale Council's past decisions and recommendations, In a written statement, broadcast on television in November 2004, a spokesman for MMC Developments Ltd said: “We are going to develop the land but along the guidelines set out in the (Council's) Unitary Development Plan for an Urban Village.”

Laurie Kazan Allen, Editor of the British Asbestos newsletter has repeatedly questioned who in Rochdale Council was responsible for the decision, in principle, for an “urban village” on the world's largest asbestos textile factory. In particular, the question of what scientific basis and safeguards had been relied upon by Rochdale Council to form such guidelines. An open question from Mrs Kazen Allen was published by Rochdale Online last year and correspondence was entered into with the Chief Executive of Rochdale Council.

Mrs Kazan Allen confirms that she has received no satisfactory answers.

As Editor of the British Asbestos Newsletter she has just given the following assessment of the groundbreaking Corby High Court legal ruling: “This landmark decision has ramifications for Rochdale Council regarding the Spodden Valley asbestos factory site.

“There is now a clear legal principle that local authorities hold a duty of care to protect communities from the hazardous effects of disturbing contaminated land. Since at least the 1960s there has been clear evidence that the inhalation of asbestos fibres, even in low quantities, can cause terminal cancer decades after initial exposure.

“Rochdale Council must take heed of this historic decision and act to protect local people.”

Hilda Palmer of the Greater Manchester Hazards Centre has just voiced equally strong concerns: “The High Court judgment is a landmark. Corby Borough Council was 'extensively negligent' in its control and management of the former British Steel sites. The breach of their statutory duty of care led or permitted the extensive dispersal of contaminated mud and dust over public areas of Corby including into and over private homes.

“This has serious implications for Rochdale MBC in its management and control of the ex T&N site. The site is known to be extensively contaminated with the known carcinogen asbestos, which may be released into the air whenever the site is disturbed, and the invisible microscopic fibres spread in the air across the area to be inhaled by people, including children who are especially at risk of developing asbestos related terminal cancers such as mesothelioma years later. These facts are not in dispute and though the owner of the site is the responsible duty holder, the court judgment on Corby Council confirms the duty of care of a council as the planning authority and environmental health authority in terms of managing and controlling the risks to long term health presented by the airborne asbestos fibres from this site.

“Other enforcement authorities such as the HSE and the Environment Agency may also be involved and this High Court judgment should cause Rochdale Council, and others across the country, to re-examine the ways in which they handle the airborne risks to their residents presented by contaminated land. GMHC has been urging a 'polluter pays' and a precautionary approach' to the Spodden Valley development from when we became aware of the issues in 2004.

“We hope that the Corby judgment will result in a tighter control regime and a rethink of the development of the Spodden Valley site for residential development.”

Save Spodden Valley's Jason Addy spoke with Gordon Brown in May and expressed concern over the potential for environmental harm in the Spodden Valley. Mr Addy explained to Rochdale Online that he gave the Prime Minister a clear message: “The most precautionary solution for the former asbestos factory site would be to carefully demolish it and reclaim it for safe amenity use. A 'green lung' for Rochdale after many decades of heavy industrial abuse.

“This would be the cheapest solution but not the most profitable. But should we take any risks with a site with such a terrible legacy? Given the known deaths that this site has already caused, this valley must be treated with the utmost care and respect.”

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