Housing developments are increasingly encouraged to be on brownfield sites – the idea being to use up vacant, previously developed land rather than develop on greenfield sites.

Brownfield sites will often have redundant buildings from previous uses still on site that need to be demolished before construction works can begin. There are a number of things to consider before demolishing old structures, but the potential presence of asbestos should always be one of the first things considered. Simply sending in the demolition team without first considering and managing asbestos properly could lead to criminal liability and potentially long-term health issues for the individuals involved.

Why is asbestos a problem

As asbestos is heat resistant, an electrical insulator, resistant to corrosion, and can be added to various other materials (e.g. cloth, cement and paper) to make them stronger. It was in widespread use in the construction industry until it was finally completely banned in 1999.

Asbestos was banned due to the discovery that it has serious health risks, specifically it can cause mesothelioma (an aggressive type of cancer) when inhaled. When in solid form – for example within asbestos cement roof tiles – asbestos is safe. But as soon as the asbestos fibres are set airborne through being damaged or disturbed, they can be dangerous to people in the vicinity due to the risk of inhalation.

Most buildings constructed before 2000 will or may contain asbestos in some form which must be managed safely to prevent health and safety issues for those working on or visiting a development site.

What needs to be done/considered?

Dealing with asbestos is regulated by the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (the Regulations). The Regulations place a "duty to manage" asbestos on the person(s) responsible for management of a premises in order to protect those that work on development sites.

The duty to manage falls upon the housebuilder undertaking or managing the demolition and re-development of a site and requires them and their project managers to:

(i) take reasonable steps to identify and record the (actual or potential) presence of asbestos containing materials;

(ii) assess the risk of the asbestos to workers;

(iii) prepare (and implement) an asbestos management plan to safely deal with (i.e. remove and dispose of) the asbestos; and

(iv) provide information on the location/condition of any asbestos to anyone who may potentially disturb the asbestos.

Asbestos survey and risk assessment

It is always advisable to have an asbestos survey carried out by a licenced contractor. In some instances, an asbestos survey may have previously been carried out and, if so, a copy together with any management plan should be obtained. Depending on its currency, it is usually worth having a new survey done for the works you are planning to confirm the latest state of any asbestos present and precautions that should be taken. Any surveys and management plans must be passed to your contractors to ensure they are aware of and manage the risks properly.

The risk of any asbestos containing materials identified will need to be assessed. If any surveys or site visits are carried out at the site, the risk to the individuals carrying out the re-development would also need to be considered in the risk assessment – particularly where an asbestos survey has not yet been carried out and/or where friable material has been identified.

Asbestos management plan

Where the building in question is to be demolished, the asbestos management plan is perhaps simpler than where the building will remain, as the only action required is the safe removal of any asbestos containing materials.

Asbestos removal must be carried out by a contractor licenced by the HSE. A list of licenced contractors can be found on the HSE website. Although there are circumstances where non-licensed contractors can carry out work on asbestos materials, these are limited to low intensity activities and to certain types of asbestos containing materials which are in good condition and are contained or can be contained such as the removal of in-tact asbestos cement roof sheeting.

Other workers who may be on the site or working at the site must be suitably trained as to the risks of disturbing asbestos and how to safely respond if (suspected) asbestos-containing materials are discovered during the demolition or development works.

What happens if the duty is not complied with?

There can be serious consequences if asbestos is not managed correctly. For those workers exposed to asbestos, there are potential long-term implications and for those responsible for the poor management of asbestos, failure to comply with their duty to manage is a criminal offence. In extreme instances, individual directors can be held personally liable for the failure.

Developing brownfield sites will always be challenging, maybe even more so when buildings of a certain age are to be demolished or redeveloped. Taking advice at an early stage when it is suspected that asbestos could be an issue will save time, money and protect people's health in the long run.