‘It isn’t normal for secret documents to turn up - it is like something out of a John Grisham novel’
Sam Hagen,who played a key role in a landmark legal case, has died
By Sarah Ward
It wasn’t until 2004 when a brown envelope of confidential papers landed on solicitor Des Collins desk, that he knew the case he was fighting against Corby Borough Council to prove its toxic waste cleanup had caused birth defects in some local children, was winnable.
Up until that point he had been unsuccessfully trying to get documents from the authority that would give him the information he needed about the clean up of the former steelworks land - the biggest undertaking of its kind in Europe.
Following an article by the Sunday Times in 1999 which suggested there was a cluster of birth defects in the town and the deformities could have been caused by the toxic waste clean up, Collins had taken on the case on behalf of number of families. But he was finding it difficult to get the evidence he needed. The council was refusing to release paperwork about how it had managed the clean-up of toxic waste pools on former British Steel land.
But then the papers mysteriously turned up.
In the BBC Horizon programme aired in 2020, Collins recalled the moment which would prove a breakthrough for his team.
“We were scratching our heads one day when I came into the office and on my desk in a brown envelope was a lever arch file full of papers.
“It isn’t normal for secret documents to turn up - it is like something out of a John Grisham novel. You think people write this stuff and I quite like reading it, but it doesn’t happen in real life - but it did happen.”
Those documents had been provided by Sam Hagen, a former council worker and then deputy leader of the council. In the early 1990s, while working for the authority he had accused it of taking short cuts while redeveloping the former steel works land but had been ignored.
Shortly before being elected as a Labour Party Councillor for the Lloyds ward in March 1995 he received a phone call from a technical officer who was employed to supervise the clearance of the toxic ponds that were scattered around the site.
Sam told the BBC:
“The council officer that blew the whistle told me that the safety regulations were not being observed. They were paying fast and loose with it, in order to do the job quicker and make money.
“And he decided as there was nothing he could do internally he had to tell somebody. Cos this lad knew that if he was known as the whistleblower he would lose his job. So he told me instead.”
Sam stored the notes and other papers he collected in his garage, and then handed them over to Des Collins after reading about the legal action.
During the decades of steelmaking in Corby, thousands of tonnes of toxic waste had been created and then put into large settlement ponds, the largest of which was at Deene Quarry.
After the steel production industry ended in 1980 (putting 11,000 people out of work and seemingly imposing a death knell on the town’s economy) its council leaders led by controversial character Kelvin Glendenning, had acted fast and managed to persuade government to fund the large-scale clean up operation which would help regenerate the town.
The town was regenerated out of its steel collapse, with firms such as RS Components moving to the town and helping unemployment rates to plummet, but the clean up operation being undertaken during the late 1980s and mid 1990s was not being handled well.
Instead of the trucks that were transporting waste being covered up, as had been advised by the government’s chief environmental officer, they were open at the back and sloshing the toxic chemicals around the town’s roads. Chemicals such as arsenic and cadmium were present in the toxic lagoons and were being dropped by lorries in a sludge all throughout the routes across the town’s northern industrial estate during the eight year clean up period.
These chemicals became airborne and were ingested by the pregnant mothers causing their children to be born with deformities, largely of the hands and feet.
In the words of contaminated land specialist Roger Braithwaite, who was employed by Des Collins to help prove the science in the legal case;
“ . . . that would have resulted in a tremendous amount of pollution, across the whole of the district. That is just basically a toxic soup of dust hanging over a town. This is not happening in even one week, or one month or even one year. It is happening over many, many years.”
In 2008 the 18 families, represented by Des Collins, won their legal action against the council after they took it to the High Court and received several millions in compensation. Sam gave evidence at the court.
It was seen to be a landmark legal case and is often referred to as the UK’s worst case of child poisoning since Thalidomide. The council apologised for its actions and the families, who had undergone years of heartache and physical pain, finally had answers.
Sam’s personal and political life
Born in Greenock near Glasgow, Sam moved down to Corby in 1962 to work in Corby Borough Council’s parks department. Originally a parks foreman, an early job was to help develop the golf course at Priors Hall. Later he became a works manager in the council depot.
After working for the council for more than two decades, in 1995 he played a part in clearing out the old Labour guard in Corby, which had run the town for many years.
Ahead of that year’s council elections, eleven standing councillors, including the then leader Kelvin Glendenning had been de-selected by the Labour party and were now standing as a new party - Corby First. The charge against those de-selected was that they had used special powers granted in the early 1980s to speed through decisions and had never revoked them, instead using them to quash opposition.
Sam stood against a Corby First candidate and won and was then re-elected in 1999 but lost the 2003 election.
During his time as part of the ruling administration, the council’s offices were raided by the police in 1996, in connection with allegations of fraud relating to the contracts awarded by the previous Labour administration for the steel land reclamation.
NN Journal understands Sam had been involved in the decision to call in the police.
Hundreds of thousands of documents were seized but after a three year investigation the Crown Prosecution Service decided there was no evidence to support a prosecution on charges of corruption, and insufficient evidence to pursue a prosecution on charges of conspiracy to defraud.
Sam lived in Corby until his death on October 11 this year. He had children and a number of grandchildren. He married his second wife Katherine in the 1990s. NN Journal has contacted the family to let them know we are writing this piece.
I was a Corby reporter in the early 2000s working for the Northants Evening Telegraph and regularly reported on the families and their legal battle.
Among a number of phone calls I have taken in my years as a local reporter, I will never forget picking up the phone to Tracy Taylor, who having read a recent article I had written about other families, had thought that the death of her new born baby Shelby, who was born with severe organ deformities, could have been caused by the toxic clear up.
She had worked in the industrial estate which had been a principal route for the open trucks that were negligently transporting toxic waste across the town.
I put the family in touch with Des Collins and she joined the case. (Unfortunately Shelby’s family were not one of those awarded compensation).
Despite the arrogance of the council in its dealings with the families and the constant assertions by then chief executive Chris Mallender that the authority had no case to answer, I always believed the children’s deformities had been caused by the clean up. I now often wonder what other damage was caused to people’s health in Corby. That is a hypothesis that has never been investigated by the health authorities.
I admire what Sam Hagen did in passing those documents to Des Collins and helping evidence the case against the council. I think it would have been very hard for the children to get the justice they deserved if he had not. Although I never spoke to him, it is clear to me he was motivated by the desire to put things right for the children whose lives were impacted by a terrible period in Corby’s history. To use Sam’s own phrase the council ‘played fast and loose’ with the health of its people.