CONCERNS have been raised about Monmouthshire council’s “level of expertise” after the removal of hidden asbestos at two schools led to project overspends of £1 million.

Labour councillor Armand Watts criticised the “onus being on the public purse” to pay for construction issues, particularly those which affected the 21st Century Schools programme in the county.

More than £90 million has been spent on two new-build schools in Caldicot and Monmouth but asbestos removal and extra project management costs has seen budgets spill over.

“I’m concerned about the level of expertise within the authority to protect ourselves from potential risk,” said Cllr Watts at the economy and development select committee on Thursday.

Councillor Phil Murphy said the issue of hidden asbestos, particularly under floors, is common in buildings built in a certain period.

The cabinet member for resources claimed contractors employed by Caerphilly council faced similar problems when removing asbestos at the former Oakdale Comprehensive School.

“I do have concerns about what we’re going to find at Monmouth,” said Cllr Murphy.

“Although lessons learned from Caldicot and other schools have been taken onboard by the engineers who are assessing the degree of asbestos removal.”

Cllr Murphy added that construction costs are based on information available at the commissioning stage, though additional costs are added when unforeseen circumstances arise.

Mark Howcroft, assistant head of finance, said responsibility for unanticipated asbestos would always rest with the council as the landowner.

Cllr Watts asked if the council’s handling of contracts could be improved if the legal resources of other councils were pooled together, instead of “hiring out expensive city lawyers”.

But Conservative councillor Mat Feakins added that the real issue was the “knowns and unknowns” around the risk of asbestos – not contracts.

“The cheapest way we can go forward is to continue what we’re doing,” said Cllr Feakins.

“To transfer risk onto a contingent party is foolhardy because we’ll end up a lot more for that in the long term.”

Peter Walker Davies, chief officer for resources, added that Monmouthshire was a leading legal authority and collaboration “might slow” plans to strengthen the legal department.

Mr Davies also said there were other lessons to be learnt after the council, in late 2016, had to plug a £11 million funding gap caused by ‘abnormal’ costs during construction of the two schools.