Bid to rid asbestos from 337 Worcestershire schools blocked after “silent killer” claim rejected

An attempt to get asbestos removed from all of Worcestershire’s schools has been rejected – after council chiefs said it would result in “mass” closures.

The Labour group at County Hall has demanded that asbestos is eradicated from nearly 350 schools by 2017 after calling it a “silent killer”.

But a motion to get it taken away was blocked by the Conservative group, which insisted the idea was unworkable and people are not at risk.

The motion also failed to find support from any other party with the Lib Dems, Greens, UKIP and independents also voting against it.

At the moment 337 schools in Worcestershire have asbestos in them, in parts of properties which are difficult for anyone to reach.

The council’s policy, backed up by the Health and Safety Executive, is to leave it alone on the basis it is unlikely to ever be disturbed unless schools are demolished.

A bid to get it dealt with led to a furious row during a full council meeting, with the Tory group accusing Labour of “scaremongering”.

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Councillor Peter McDonald, Labour group leader, said: “I take this very seriously and I don’t see it as scaremongering.

“I see it as making teachers, students and parents aware of the danger in our schools.”

He claimed hundreds of schools were “riddled with asbestos” and called the authority’s stance on it “shameful”, saying;

“Our schools are facing an asbestos ticking time-bomb.”

Labour Councillor Paul Denham, who also backed up the motion, said he arrived in Worcester from London in 1984 to take up a teaching job at the old Elgar High School and was “shocked” at the relaxed attitude to it.

“I remember being alarmed at seeing one building being torn down, with no protection at all, for the workers and pupils nearby.”

He told the chamber he felt the county was “so far behind” other areas on asbestos safety, adding:

“It’s not good enough just to convert schools into academies and have that asbestos risk hanging over another organisation.”

But Conservative Councillor Marc Bayliss, cabinet member for commissioning and transformation, said the officers’ advice was that it would be “more dangerous” to try and remove it.

He accused Labour of pushing “project fear”, saying the vast majority of asbestos on all council property is gone and that the bits which remain are undisturbed.  He said:

“To remove it all by 2017 would involve the mass closure of many schools and I know (Councillor Denham) wouldn’t want to see that.

Asbestos is taken very seriously by this council and we have a team of professionals looking at it.”

He insisted it was not dangerous unless disturbed, a stance backed by Lib Dem group leader Councillor Liz Tucker, who called Labour’s claims “a serious charge”.  She added:

“I think this motion puts people in fear, and I have not seen any evidence it is justified.”

The motion was defeated by 34 votes to eight.