For almost all Local Authorities in England, Legionnaires Disease prevention' remains a difficult and costly balancing act. Local government in England operates under either a one tier system - unitary authorities, or a two tier system - county and district councils. There are five types of local authority in England: county councils, district councils, unitary authorities, metropolitan districts and London boroughs. The 22 unitary authorities in Wales are no less affected.
Local authorities are responsible for the provision of an extensive range of public services alongside promotion of the interests of your local community, including the social, economic, environmental, recreational, cultural, community or general development of your area. It’s a tall order!
Nonetheless, in common with other public sector organisations, they have a duty to ensure that buildings under their control comply with appropriate statutory, regulatory and guidance standards. Since the 2008 economic downturn in the UK, funding levels have continued to be cut via central government and local authorities are increasingly reliant on local taxes for revenue. Legionella management vies with several other compliance areas and isn’t always seen as one of the higher priorities.
How common is Legionnaires Disease?
Legionnaires' disease is a relatively rare though potentially fatal bacterial infection [thought to still be ~500 cases/annum in England & Wales despite recent UKHSA figures to the contrary] and despite headlines in the event of a local outbreak, when perhaps the man on the street becomes more concerned, the reality is it is soon forgotten. Legionnaires' disease is by definition not an immediate risk such as an HV/LV electricity risk or a burn/scald.
Legionnaires' disease risks outside of those directly involved in water hygiene management or compliance, are often not a visible concern on any level. This in itself is problematic, however with widespread awareness [at a relatively low cost] these concerns can be mitigated.
Water Hygiene Compliance in local authority buildings
As with any large-scale organisations owning/managing multiple properties, of differing types and scale, with varying occupant vulnerabilities and with a slew of different types of technical water systems that are often spread across wide geographical areas, it’s no wonder compliance levels remain variable.
An FPS report from 2011 on Compliance Monitoring in Council Buildings highlighted the task of achieving compliance in local authority buildings ‘has become increasingly complex, onerous and difficult in the context of various potentially competing drivers’ This is not expected to have changed more than 10 years on. Factors of concern include:-
- An increasing burden of legislative and regulatory duties falling on building occupiers.
- Delegation of relevant budgets and responsibilities to individual establishments, notably schools, but with ultimate accountability still seen as resting with the corporate body of the Council.
- The consequences of increased delegation having brought about a significant reduction in resources retained centrally to develop and monitor compliance with relevant standards.
- Loss of critical mass and control in the delivery of property-related services through outsourcing, budget reductions and fragmentation of resources.
- Governance arrangements in establishments are becoming increasingly more complex through the move to Shared Services and Partnering arrangements that do not fit easily with traditional landlord and tenant definitions.
Evidence of the ultimate failure in Legionella compliance is also demonstrated on an intermittent basis with Legionella outbreaks, such as that found in a leisure centre operated by Tendring District Council in Essex. The failures identified by the HSE during their investigation concluded that following a decision to bring the services in-house, the Council staff had received inadequate Legionella Training to deliver the service to a satisfactory standard over a 10-year period. The district judge said directly that the council’s fine ‘would have been 10 times higher, had it not been a public body’.
The key learning point from this prosecution is that competence levels for in-house staff delivering water hygiene services must be routinely monitored and audited, as all external contractor’s staff would be. To have these critical services delivered by inadequately trained and unaudited staff, whether in-house or by an external contractor, is simply not acceptable.
A clear message to ensure Legionella control
Despite largely overcoming the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, the effective work of local authorities in supporting and providing services to their communities, remains as important as ever. Legionella risks could certainly increase without continued due care and attention, now we have transitioned to a new normality, including the re-occupation of properties that may have been mothballed or still remain under occupied since March 2020.
Local authorities will always have multi-tiered management structures and the importance of a straightforward Legionella risk management ‘communication pathway’, where internal and external staff at all levels have clarity regarding their role and prescriptive responsibilities is vital. The forum for this would be a dedicated Water Safety Group and a clear management framework, accessible to all staff members. This is often found in Water Safety Plan [WSP] documentation, and more widely on the Local authority intranet in conjunction with other contract documentation. BS8680 Water Quality – Water Safety Plans - Code of Practice  provides a framework for just such WSP’s.
Water Hygiene contractual complications
The arms-length management that many councils and other organisations adopt, either by accident or design can also often make Legionella risk management difficult to oversee and put the day to day risk management into the hands of either contractors, or local authority staff more local to the properties.
Historically local authorities have used direct labour [DLO’s] to undertake Legionella risk control measures, however for many years now these have become the exception to the more regular use of externally procured water hygiene companies. The latter have several benefits in theory, such as a dedicated, suitably trained and competent workforce, local to the managed properties and with costs agreed up front. On the flip side, externally employed staff will perhaps not show the goodwill provided by direct staff, competency may not be as advertised and this sort of contractual arrangement may well potentially induce some level of local authority complacency.
Lowest price tendering has also been a feature of local authority Legionella or water hygiene contracts both before and since the 2008 downturn. However, this can sometimes impact on the associated risks and adverse consequences. In a competitive market, contractors may be forced to price work at unrealistically low levels. This may then lead to contractors being unable to maintain standards or make profits. On renewal of contracts, local authorities should be mindful of whether continuing with the same approach is likely to deliver costs savings or more cost and time overruns. The end product should deliver reduced levels of corporate risk – even if this may not be visible for an extended period of time.
Additionally, where external contractors are used, it often also becomes apparent that the local authority staff liaison to the contractor becomes a vital link between the strategic ‘meeting based’ management of Legionella and the operational side of the Legionella management. The competency of these individuals is critical and their ability to make quick and effective decisions will regularly come under scrutiny.
Local Authority Legionella issues during and post Covid-19
Continues Covid-19 fall-out and the economic downturn during 2023 will continue to provide local authorities with uncertainty and perplexing Legionella issues. Some of these for consideration are as follows;
- Outsourced services if the service provider becomes insolvent or gets into difficulty. Local authorities will need to consider the best option to ensure continuity and future provision of services.
- Decision-making and accountability. Many local authorities have sensibly decided to postpone face-to-face meetings for the foreseeable future but they still need to function and there will also still need to be transparency of decisions.
- Meeting statutory obligations. The availability of workers, access to resources and ability to travel could put pressure on the ability of local authorities to comply with their statutory duties.
- The responsibilities of local authorities as owners, landlords and tenants of buildings. Local authorities will continue to be obliged to comply with any and all relevant legislation and guidance, particularly including health and safety ie Legionella related tasks
Legionella: A reminder from 2002
We shouldn’t forget, in August 2002, seven members of the public died and 180 people suffered ill health as a result of an outbreak of legionella at a council-owned arts and leisure facility in the town centre of Barrow-in-Furness.
In 2006 public meetings were held and a report was issued to record the content of those meetings and to allow others to learn what caused the outbreak and what changes have been made since. It also provided duty holders with similar responsibilities for controlling Legionella risk to benefit from the findings of the investigation and be able to apply the recommendations identified as a result of the tragedy. 6 fundamental failings were identified as follows;
Failure 1: Poor lines of communication and unclear lines of responsibility
Failure 2: Failure to act on advice and concerns raised
Failure 3: Failure to carry out legionella risk assessments
Failure 4: Poor management of contractors and contract documentation
Failure 5: Inadequate legionella training and resources
Failure 6: Individual failings
What remains apparent to all of us employed in the water hygiene industry from these six failings, is they are a common place and we must ensure adequate due diligence is the foundation stone of our Legionella risk management approach.
Despite all the aforementioned issues local authorities face including complications of scale, funding and management complexities, Legionella risk management at ground level in an individual building or property is fundamentally very often straightforward. The often quoted truism ‘keep it moving, keep it clean and keep it at the right temperature’ is a reminder that keeping a message clear and simple can be beneficial when dealing with a large portfolio and properties - all with inherent Legionella risks.
Editors Note: The information provided in this blog is correct at date of original publication – July 2020. (Revised June 2023)