Council promises more public scrutiny of its joint-venture businesses

The move comes after one of its joint-venture companies failed to update the council’s asbestos safety plan for nine years, reports Josh Mellor, Local Democracy Reporter

Waltham Forest Town Hall

Waltham Forest Council has promised more public scrutiny of its joint-venture businesses following an investigation into how it manages asbestos safety.

Last month, the council concluded that it had not breached laws designed to protect the public from asbestos, a building material that can cause a deadly form of cancer to develop if not managed safely.

However, the council’s chief legal officer Mark Hynes said that its asbestos safety plan – which was not updated between 2013 and 2022 – was managed by its own joint-venture company, Evolve Norse, until 2020.

Despite the council’s ownership of Evolve Norse and its role in critical building safety issues such as asbestos safety and training, the council rarely publishes reports on Evolve Norse’s activities.

Following Hynes’ investigation, which touched on Evolve Norse’s role, deputy leader Ahsan Khan said there will now be quarterly reports about joint ventures shown to the council’s shareholder committee “to ensure best practice and transparency”.

He told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “The council has a well-established governance structure in place as part of management arrangements for the Evolve joint venture with the Norse Group as well as for the joint venture with Mears.”

Evolve Norse, previously known as NPS London Ltd, is a building design and management company, set up in 2007 by Waltham Forest Council and Norfolk County Council’s company Norse Group.

The venture’s purpose is to save the council money through access to outsourced construction services such as design, surveying, and property management.

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The council’s asbestos management plan, which Evolve Norse did not update between 2013 and 2020, is not the first time the company’s management of the substance has faced public scrutiny.

In 2012 the company was part of a health and safety prosecution for its role in an incident that saw construction workers at St Mary’s Primary School exposed to asbestos.

Evolve Norse later pleaded guilty alongside two other companies and was fined £50,000.

The council is supposed to offer public scrutiny of its business activities through the shareholder committee, staffed by the Labour leadership and senior officers, which publishes reports about business performance and key decision-making.

However, there has never been a public report on Evolve Norse’s work and performance brought before the shareholder committee or by councillors on Waltham Forest’s six scrutiny committees.

A cabinet report published last year said the council had decided to reset its relationship with NPS, extending the contract for several more years, and approved its rebrand to Evolve Norse.

The council also has a joint venture with housing and social care giant Mears Group to buy permanent housing for residents in temporary accommodation.

Despite approving the joint venture two years ago, it has never published an update on how many homes it has bought or how the venture is performing financially.

Conservative councillor John Moss said: “We urge the Labour administration to take up the Conservative group’s suggestion that the shareholder committee should include a representative of the principal opposition to be that critical friend.

“The council’s shareholder committees, don’t include any opposition councillors, just cabinet members and council officers.

“To have proper democratic oversight, all such boards and committees should have critical friends from across the borough.”

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