The health of residents in Southall, West London, is being steadily eroded as a result a scandal involving Boris Johnson, right-wing Labour councillors, and profiteering property developers. But these local residents are fighting back.
A community in West London is being slowly poisoned, due to an irresponsible property developer, a Blairite council, negligent state authorities, and the actions of now-PM Boris Johnson while he was Mayor of London.
For two-and-a-half years, residents of Ealing Southall have suffered from headaches, nausea, persistent coughing, eye irritation, disorientation, increased rates of asthma and even an alleged rise in cancer. The culprit is given away by a noxious odour emanating from the Southall Waterside development, containing the former location of Southall Gasworks, which was shut down in 1973.
The 88-acre site of the old gasworks is being redeveloped by the Berkley Group (who were the subject of a major corruption scandal in November 2018) as part of one of the most ambitious construction projects currently underway in Britain. A four-square-acre park, 3,750 homes and 500,000 square feet of commercial space is proposed for the development, which will sit adjacent to a Crossrail route into central London. Damian Leydon, operations director at Berkeley West Thames, has said of Waterside:
“Located right in the heart of the development, the new linear park would provide children with space to run around and play, as well as places for people to relax and simply enjoy being surrounded by nature.”
But this rosy picture belies a grim reality for thousands of current Southall residents. The old gasworks filled the surrounding soil with dangerous chemicals that had to be removed before construction could proceed. Rather than exporting and treating the poisoned soil elsewhere, it was proposed in 2017 that it be treated on-site in an open-air ‘soil hospital’.
The byproducts from this process have been allowed to pile up behind people’s homes, releasing a cocktail of benzene (a known carcinogen), terpenes, naphthalene, asbestos and cyanide that has filled the surrounding area with a stinking and toxic malaise.
Socialist Appeal spoke with David Marsden, a local Momentum activist and Labour Party member for Ealing Southall, who described the situation:
“In the summer heatwave last year, we were bombarded by the smell, day in and day out. And because of the smell, we couldn’t even open our windows to deal with the heat. I’ve had constant chest infections for years.
“I thought it was a question of public nuisance: I called up Ealing Council, and told them to sort it. I mean, if someone makes your house smell of petrol, that can’t be allowed.
“They finished the soil hospital in March, and Ealing Council said on Twitter that the smell was going to clear up in a matter of days, but it hasn’t gone away. It’s now perfectly possible for Ealing Council to issue an abatement notice, but because the work is supposedly done, they say the source of the continuing smell must be elsewhere: possibly residents’ homes!
“We were misled from the beginning about what’s really happening. We’ve kept asking the developers to stop and they just refused. I feel like we’ve tried all the obvious routes available to us in our so-called democracy.”
Johnson’s poisonous policies
The potential risks of this development were noted by Ealing Council, who initially rejected the planning application in 2010. But this decision was overturned (without a fight) by none other than then-Mayor Boris Johnson. Using special powers, he forced through the go-ahead for the Waterside development, and paved the way for the National Grid to sell off the land to the highest bidder.
This disastrous decision has created a nightmare for Southall residents, one that has been perpetuated by an unholy alliance between the developer, the council and state authorities.
Marsden revealed the chummy relations between Berkeley and the Blairite-dominated Southall Council:
“Local councillors and the council leadership have shown no solidarity at all with the residents in Southall. I went to my ward forum meeting in July where, upon raising my concerns, I was told by Peter Mason [Cllr for Southall Green], the chair, basically to sit down and shut up. He said I needed to be a ‘good and respectful neighbour’ to the Berkeley Group!
“The thing is, he’s head of planning on the council, so he has links to developers. This year, he and Julian Bell [leader of Ealing Council] were shipped out on an all-expenses-paid trip to an international property developers’ festival in Cannes. Bell’s been going for the past seven years or so.
“The Private Eye revealed that Ealing Council received £60,000 from this festival, but Bell and Mason only declared £5,000 between them. Who knows where the rest of the money has gone.
“I actually went along to an air quality scrutiny forum, where none of our councilors said anything at all. After the meeting, who should I see but Damian Leydon, chatting with Bell like they were good mates. Probably discussing their next trip to the south of France!”
With the council dragging its feet, local campaigners independently contacted Public Health England (PHE), and demanded they carry out an assessment of the air quality around Waterside. But PHE refused, because they had already conducted an interim assessment of air quality, using data provided by the consultancy Atkins – which was hired by Berkeley.
Unsurprisingly, the report found the byproducts of the soil remediation at Waterside were “considered unlikely to pose a direct toxicological risk to the health of the nearby population… on the basis of the available monitoring data, average levels of VOCs [volatile organic compounds] have been below or comparable to guideline or assessment levels.”
Yet the report also concluded that levels of naphthalene on site “should urgently be reduced to prevent prolonged exposures” [our emphasis]. This seems a bit of a contradiction. How can everything be at acceptable levels when naphthalene in the air must be reduced urgently?
Even more incredibly, neither the Environment Agency (EA) nor Ealing Council have found reason – despite a wealth of complaints – to take any action against the Berkeley Group to protect residents. The council did not even seek its own independent assessment of the public health impact of Waterside, and instead relied on the developer to ‘prove’ the air had a clean bill of health.
“It seems environmental law is weighted so heavily in favour of the developer,” said Marsden. “All the Berkeley Group had to do to satisfy environmental law is to employ extra odour suppressants – machines that squirt out deodorant that’s meant to be ‘cotton fresh’. It doesn’t fix the smell, it just mixes with it to produce a new, sickly odour, and doesn’t address the toxins. But the EA says the developer has done everything it reasonably can in the eyes of the law.”
This speaks to the limits of legalistic ‘solutions’ to environmental questions: the laws of the land are written with big business interests in mind. Indeed, it’s common practice for private property developers to provide their own risk-assessments, which are usually accepted as good coin by the ‘independent’ public authorities.
Adding insult to injury, an Ealing Council spokesperson stated that “three reports have now been published, which have found that while smells are unpleasant they are unlikely to pose a risk to the health of the nearby population” [our emphasis].
Apparently, so as long as the air isn’t literally killing them (at least according to data paid for by the developer) residents should just put up with the foul odour. As one Labour member recently commented at a public meeting in Acton, “if the council isn’t going to stop us being poisoned, then what is it good for?”
Perhaps most shockingly of all, it was recently revealed that the Berkeley site construction manager has for some time been sitting on the board of governors at Blair Peach Primary School, right on the edge of the development site, where young students have been suffering the effects of the toxic fumes.
Southall residents fight back
Unsurprisingly, Southall residents are kicking up a stink. A grassroots campaign, Clean Air for Southall and Hayes (CASH), is mounting a legal challenge against the Berkeley Group. Barrister and ex-Labour councillor, Jo Sidhu, is heading up the case, and has stated that both Ealing Council and the EA will also likely be forced to defend their conduct as far as the High Court.
The leader of CASH, Angela Fonso, said to Socialist Appeal:
“Since the decommissioning of the soil hospital at the end of March 2019, there have still been persistent reports of odour nuisance, which is now blighting the school summer holiday. Some of Ealing’s councillors visited residents on Beaconsfield Road on 10th August, and experienced how bad the odour is for themselves. Two complained of headaches and sore throats. Dr. Onkar Sahota was also part of the visiting group and was aware of the stench and met an affected family.
“It stinks outside and it is entering my home through open windows. Even if the windows are shut, I still experience odour indoors. Yet again, I feel nauseous because the council won’t issue a section 80 abatement notice to Berkeley Group.
“Residents feel badly let down by Ealing Council’s failure to treat the odour as a statutory nuisance, so CASH is focusing efforts on fundraising for legal action.”
CASH also has the backing of the Ealing Southall Constituency Labour Party, which voted overwhelmingly in favour of an emergency motion offering its solidarity with local activists, and calling for an investigation into the impact on public health caused by the Waterside development.
It was this struggle with Berkeley that led Marsden to get involved with CASH, and join the Labour Party and Momentum:
“I was politically apathetic until a year or so ago – it was only when this became an issue for myself, my family and neighbours that I felt I had to get involved.
“The solidarity we’ve experienced from Labour Party members has been amazing – and a complete contrast with our elected representatives, councillors and our MP, Virendra Sharma [who recently lost a no-confidence vote at the CLP] who have been completely useless.
“Everyone I’ve spoken to has said democracy in Southall is broken. The Labour Party leadership here does not have Labour values. It’s a safe seat, so people simply join for power and influence. You could say they’re on the right of the party, but they probably shouldn’t be in the party at all!
“We’re a majority ethnic seat as well, so there’s a feeling that the language barrier and fear of the authorities are being exploited to prevent people from speaking up.
“But the grassroots members have been incredibly helpful and active. That’s why I joined up last year – to change things.”
What is happening in Southall is nothing short of a corporate crime, reminiscent of the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan; and the fiercely resisted expansion of Heathrow airport – which is also a public health and environmental nightmare for the communities affected. In all these cases, collusion between state authorities and profiteering corporations have endangered the wellbeing of innocent people.
Labour should pledge to nationalise parasitic construction companies like Berkeley – without compensation – in order to place these firms and their resources under democratic control. Only then can decent, affordable housing and public facilities be provided without ruining the environment and public health in the process.
The situation in Southall also underlines the need to immediately bring down Boris Johnson and his disgusting Tory government. It is with Boris and the criminal Tories that fault for the Waterside debacle ultimately lies.
And finally, the despicable behaviour of the right-wing Labour councilors – who have duped residents and colluded with the developers – shows the necessity of Labour members fighting for elected representatives who are class fighters, not cronies and careerists.
We offer our full solidarity with CASH, and invite our readers and supporters to donate to this crowdfunding campaign to cover their legal expenses, so that hopefully they can find some measure of justice.
But, as we have seen, the legal system is heavily tilted in favour of the fat-cats. Ultimately, until we bring down this rotten capitalist system, even the very air we breathe will continue to be seen as acceptable collateral damage by the bosses in their insatiable pursuit of profit.