Southall Under Siege: The Neighbours From Hell

‘A lack of scrutiny,’ says John Freeman, Regulatory Services Officer at Ealing Council.

He’s talking about lessons to be learned from the council’s response to the new asphalt plant built in neighbouring Hillingdon borough in 2014.

‘We didn’t expect there to be so much odour from a new building, or so many complaints.’

Moving swiftly on.

Oppressive odour

The highly contaminated old gasworks site in Southall has been kicking up a stink, too.

Carcinogenic benzene and naphthalene, among a cocktail of polyaromatic hydrocarbons, heavy metals and particulates large and small, are in the air.

‘The odour is oppressive,’ says Damian Leydon.

There are twenty or thirty people in the room.

No one bats an eyelid.

Upset residents

Damian is the Operations Director at 'Southall Waterside', as the gasworks site is being marketed.

It's wedged between the grand union canal, Yeading Brook and Minet Park to the north-west of the site, and two of the twenty percent most economically deprived council wards in England. Southall Green to the south, and Southall Broadway to the north and north-east.

‘The last thing we want to do is upset residents,’ says Damian.

It’s a bit late for that.

Please stop

Damian previously worked as the Construction Manager on Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant in Somerset, and the Athletes Village at the 2012 London Olympics.

Presumably, there were no carcinogenic leaks, oppressed, or upset residents there.

Three times I ask Damian, ‘How many residents are you prepared to upset before you will stop?’

No answers

As for almost every question that night, at Ealing Council’s Air Quality Scrutiny Panel meeting in September 2018, there is no answer.

The meeting concludes, and later the ‘minutes’ are published, but such minutiae do not make the cut.

Was I at a different meeting?

The final report of the ‘scrutiny’ panel, six months later, reads as if the problem is in the past, finished, with yet more ‘lessons to be learned’ (and immediately forgotten).

Friends with benefits

As I leave the meeting, I see Damian having a cosy-looking chat in the corridor (of power) outside the meeting room with Julian Bell, Ealing Council's Leader.

Councillor Bell sat through the two hour meeting in silence.

I ask Julian if he’s booking his holiday in Cannes?

The south of France resort hosts the annual MIPIM property developers’ ‘booze and hookerfest’ (as Private Eye magazine calls it).

Julian is a regular attendee, all expenses paid for by Damian’s employer Berkeley Group, despite claiming to be teetotal. Peter Mason, my ward councillor, is a new attendee. He is not teetotal.

‘If my son gets cancer because of this, you better not stand so close to me,’ I say to Leydon.

He rolls his eyes.

‘David, don’t let’s make this personal,’ says Bell.

We can't breathe!

For two and a half years, my family, my neighbours and friends, have been harassed, attacked, and gassed in our own homes and gardens.

Our children have been forced to breathe ‘stinky’, poisonous air in their school playgrounds, and in our public parks.

We have been laid under siege through three hot summers, including last year’s extended heatwave.

Despite many repeated requests to stop, Damian’s uncovered, unenclosed cesspit of decontamination of a hundred years of toxic waste continues unabated.

Good neighbours

‘Be a good and respectful neighbour,’ says Councillor Mason, at the ward forum.

‘It’s unpleasant’ we are told. ‘It will clear in days, and it’s not harmful to health,’ Ealing Council namelessly tweeted. In June 2017.

Round and round we go.

Is this corrupt?

‘It’s the wrong kind of wind,’ claims Bell.

‘It’s not our responsibility, it’s the Environment Agency.’

‘It’s not us, it’s Public Health England.’

‘I’ll phone Julian and get him to put a councillor on it for you,’ Tony Pidgley, founder and chair of Berkeley Group tells us.

“Cash. Always cash.” (Tony Pidgley)

We started a campaign. Clean Air for Southall and Hayes. CASH for short.

‘I DO NOT TAKE CASH! I DO NOT TAKE CASH!’ is our MP Virendra Sharma’s frankly bizarre opening statement, shouted at us when we go to meet him.

What’s going on?

When is remediation NOT remediation?

Back to the future with John Freeman.

I email John to ask him when remediation of the soil (the cleaning of the contaminated land) is due to be completed. It’s the excavation, the turning, the moving of the toxic waste that has laid at rest for fifty years or more that we’re told is likely to be the main source of the odour nuisance and air pollution.

‘March 2019. It’s finished already.’

‘But it still stinks.’

‘Did you leave the cooker on?’

‘But I’ve seen the planning documents where it says remediation is scheduled to be completed in 2038.’

John consults his colleague, James Potter, Ealing’s Contaminated Land Officer, whose post was initially funded by none other than Berkeley Group.

A very simple explanation as it turns out.

‘The remediation for the next nineteen years is, in a sense, NOT remediation.’

Berkeley bribes?

Then there is the fact, confirmed (and denied) by Public Health England, that the majority Asian and African population of Southall, due to genetic factors, have an increased risk from exposure to naphthalene.

And then there’s Berkeley Group's track record of paying off their former finance director to keep quiet about allegations of bribery and corruption at the top of the company.

Understandably, we doubt the veracity of their own reports of the air quality monitoring data recorded by their business partner, data which they refuse to share with us.

Enough is enough.

Stop the work at the gasworks site while it is made safe.

Stop poisoning Southall.

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