Famous retail streets

The future of Marble Arch shopping complex reflects the debate being had in towns and cities across the UK about how best to ensure the nation’s most famous retail streets can survive.

And central to that debate is how buildings can be safely and sustainably preserved, modernised or re-built without exposing staff, workers or the public to asbestos.

“The Arch” and the flagship Marks and Spencer store stands as a prominent anchor point to Oxford Street which stretches 2km to Tottenham Court Road.  Recognised as the world’s busiest shopping street it attracts half a million visitors daily to the 300-plus shops.

But like many significant buildings, that M&S store was built at a time when asbestos was simply regarded as a wonder building material that could massively reduce fire risk.

Now we know different, and although asbestos has been banned in new builds since 2000, it still exists in the 1930’s-built M&S and an estimated 100,000 UK buildings that predate the current century.

Left dormant, asbestos is safe, but if it is disturbed and damaged it can release fibres which when inhaled cause blockage to the lungs leading to the cancer Mesothelioma and other life-threatening conditions.

M&S knows full well the human and financial cost of this. Former staff from a number of stores – including Marble Arch – have successfully sued the company after being diagnosed with Mesothelioma.    

The Marble Arch store dates back to 1930 and needs urgent attention if it is to survive in an increasingly competitive retail world, as well as competition from the internet and escalating costs it needs to transform the Arch into a shopping space fit for the future.

M&S describe the three buildings on the current site as a warren of poor-quality structures and misaligned floors, impossible to modernise in parts and with asbestos challenges, which although completely safe, make it impossible to develop without rebuilding.

M&S believe the only way forward is to demolish the current structure, safely remove all asbestos and build a new, state of the art complex of vibrant shopping and office space.  

Whilst the scale may differ, the dilemma faced by M&S on how shops and other buildings can be safely transformed for the 21st century is replicated across the UK.

And recent cases have highlighted the dangers of ignoring the risks asbestos poses.  

A case last year heard how botched work on the former Joplings Department Store in Sunderland led to large quantities of asbestos containing materials being smashed up with sledgehammers resulting in asbestos being spread across a number of floors and also the public street outside the property.

Two former directors of Keebar Construction received suspended prison sentences and were ordered to pay in excess of £40,000 costs and to carry out 120 hours community service.

In Manchester Sal Construction Ltd were found to have breached similar asbestos legislation during refurbishment of student accommodation in Manchester

And in Plymouth a court heard workers were put at risk when Ensure Asbestos Management was found to have cut corners in asbestos removal during property renovation.

The director of Ensure Asbestos Management, Billy Hopwood, of Swanstead, Essex, and contracts manager, Phillip Hopwood of Churchgate Street, Harlow, Essex were both jailed for breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act.

A public inquiry will ultimately decide whether M&S can proceed with their plans to demolish and rebuild their flagship Marble Arch store but the message from the Government and courts is clear. When carrying out work in any building built prior to 2000 the handling and removal of asbestos needs to be done by reputable companies who are expert in the field and can ensure the safety of workers and the public.

Eton Environmental Group has provided its accredited asbestos services on some of the best-known buildings in the UK, so please do not hesitate to get in touch for more information if you are concerned about possible asbestos in your building.

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