Response to purchase of former Turner Brothers Asbestos site
Date published: 12 November 2021
The former Turner Brothers Asbestos factory in Spodden Valley
Campaigners, local residents and members of Rochdale Borough Council have responded to the news that the former Turner Brothers Asbestos site has been bought by a UK company.
The factory, once the world’s largest asbestos manufacturer, processed asbestos from the 1870s until the mid-1990s, employing many generations of workers before going into administration in 2001.
In 2004, it was sold to a Jersey-based company. According to Land Registry files, ownership was later transferred to another offshore company, Renshaw Properties, based in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), a tax haven.
The site has now been bought by specialist company ESG Trading, which decontaminates and remediates complex brownfield sites.
Survey work and increased activity at the former TBA site is expected over the coming weeks, ESG says.
Local residents and campaigners have reiterated the importance of addressing the site’s “toxic legacy” whilst councillors say public safety will be the local authority’s “top priority.”
Jason Addy, archivist of the Spodden Valley Trust educational and research body, said: “Many people in Rochdale and beyond will take great interest in this news given the questionable activity that has occurred on this site for far too long.
“The message is clear: this site and the people of Rochdale must be treated with the upmost respect.
“There is a toxic legacy from asbestos and the corporate decisions made that must be addressed.
“Whilst not familiar with ESG Trading Group, their personnel or professed expertise, local people may judge them by their actions rather than words in the months and years to come.
“That said, a promise that any remediation strategy that ‘exceeds statutory requirements’ sounds promising. The devil will be in the detail, especially as the PR copy already presumes this site to be an ‘opportunity to contribute to the future growth of Rochdale’.
“A Land Registry search as of Tuesday 9 November still has the Registered Title holders to be Renshaw Properties Ltd, registered in the offshore tax havens of the British Virgin Islands and Jersey.
“Previous Land Registry documents cite the purchase price paid on 2 March 2004 was £6.25 million.”
A number of local residents, including Green Party campaigner Mick Coats, have previously called for the site to be turned into a country park.
But ESG’s reference to contributing to ‘future growth’ in the borough, suggests this is not in the firm’s plans.
Mr Coats said it remains his – and Rochdale Green Party’s – preferred option.
“It is because the cost of remediation we think would be totally prohibitive to anybody doing anything on it.
“But, again, we need more information.
“We are not saying we want this, that and the other but our preferred option has been the country park because that would benefit more residents and, secondly, we really don’t believe you could remediate it – you would have to spend millions.”
Mr Coats also called on the council to play its part in making sure residents are kept informed of any plans for the site.
“We are trying to be reasonable but when things come out of the blue like this it doesn’t give you confidence,” he said.
“There are a lot of questions and if they want to take people with them, they need to involve people, consult people and ask their views
“We need more information and we need to be consulted – we live here.”
Councillor John Blundell, cabinet member for economy, has moved to reassure people that public safety will be the local authority’s top priority.
He said: “This site is not in the council’s land supply, the reason being it had a factory on it that made asbestos and has damaged the health of, and killed, lots of people in Rochdale.
“The council takes very seriously what goes on that site as the planning authority.
“What happens to the site, there are lots of different opinions on that. But ultimately it needs to be driven by people that know what they are talking about remediating asbestos.
“And before anything is done on the site – whether it’s a country park or land for housing – the site must be safe.”
Councillor Blundell said that any planning application would be subject to the usual planning policies and procedures – including consultation – and that the authority would go ‘above and beyond’ when it comes to engaging with the public.
He added: “The council will act in a manner that means whatever happens the safety of the public will be the first priority.”
The news has already seen a plea for the new owners to be ‘responsible, open and transparent in their planning and actions’ from Norden councillor Peter Winkler.
However, posting on his Facebook page, the Conservative said the ‘signs were good’, given the firm’s commitment ‘to engage with the council, the environment agency and the public via local forums’.
A spokesman for the council said they hope that the new owners “will take action to make the site safe” after spending “many years trying to find a safe and sustainable long-term solution for it.”
The Turner and Newall business was acquired by Federal-Mogul in 1998, before it went into administration in 2001.
The site was then sold to MMC Estates, who submitted plans in December 2004 to build over 600 homes and a children’s nursery. The application summary claimed – despite visible asbestos hanging like cobwebs in the valley – ‘…of particular note is the absence of any asbestos contamination.’
The following year, consultants Atkins Global were given the task of reporting on the environmental and site assessments that accompanied the controversial planning application by Rochdale Borough Council.
These plans were scrapped in 2010 after a determined community effort.
Renshaw, the previous owners, carried out a geophysical land survey over five months in 2016 and 2017, but the findings were never published, despite confirming they had received the survey report and a prior promise to share the report with Rochdale Borough Council.
A £26,000 council-commissioned air survey in October 2017 identified the discovery of only one asbestos fibre from a sample taken at Harridge Avenue. Yet soil tests on the site in 2013 confirmed asbestos contamination in most of the test holes dug and United Utilities asbestos air testing detected elevated levels of asbestos fibres in the air. Asbestos was also discovered in exposed tree roots within 10 metres of a footpath, cycle path and bridleway, the nearest houses less than 250 metres from the exposed fibres.
Hundreds of local residents concerned about asbestos contamination and damage to wildlife habitat formed the vocal Save Spodden Valley campaign in 2004.
Save Spodden Valley has since campaigned for “open and accountable” scrutiny of the site to ensure a “permanent and safe” solution.
The council also has a web page dedicated to the site, here.
Reporting: Michelle Kight, Rochdale Online
Additional reporting: Nick Statham, Local Democracy Reporting Service
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