It is shocking to learn that the fire safety issues at Cardinal Lofts have been known for almost two years, but the necessary repairs still are not complete.

Last weekend, I visited Cardinal Lofts and met with some of the residents there. The more I learn, the more upset I am with the way residents have been treated.

Ipswich Star:

During my visit, I was shown two pieces of correspondence from the building managers to the residents, dated January 2021 and June 2021, showing that the fire safety issue that forced the partial evacuation last month seems to have been known for almost two years. I was shocked.

With smoke being the biggest killer in building fires, it’s essential that buildings like Cardinal Lofts have working Automatic Opening Vent (AOV) systems to vent out smoke in the event of fire.

Ipswich Star: Ipswich MP Tom HuntIpswich MP Tom Hunt (Image: House of Commons)

At Cardinal Lofts, the AOV system is not working properly, which is why the Fire Service ultimately took the decision last month to order a partial evacuation. They were doing their jobs to keep residents safe, and they are not to blame. Instead, all eyes must be on the managers and the freeholder.

The signs posted in the building by the managing agency regarding the fire safety issues seem to imply that the problem was discovered only recently, as part of the cladding repairs.

But when I visited Cardinal Lofts last week, the two letters shown me by residents showed that the building manager was aware of the vent issues as far back as January 2021 and June 2021.

At the time, residents were told that the AOV system in Cardinal Lofts needed important repairs given the fire risk from the cladding problems.

They were even told they would need to help pay for them. It’s clear from these letters that the vent issues have been known for almost two years. How, then, are we still at square one?

This discovery clearly raises some crucial questions. How long did the freeholder know about the AOV problems?

If they’ve known since January 2021, as the letters indicate, why has nothing been done? And if the building was safe to live in for almost two years without the issue being addressed, what changed and forced residents out of their homes in the middle of the night? How did the situation change seemingly overnight?

I wrote to Railpen this week to urgently get clarification. Given the chaos that the evacuation has forced on residents, if it is true that the freeholder knew about the issues but failed to act, this would be incredibly concerning.

They have had many opportunities to sort out the situation but have clearly failed to do so.

Ipswich Star: Cardinal Lofts, in Ipswich where there are concerns about the cladding Picture: Archant

I’m working to get answers, and if they knew and failed to act, there will have to be accountability. I can’t see any good reason why essential repairs that could force part of the building to be evacuated wouldn’t be carried out as soon as the problem is known.

My immediate priority continues to be getting the building safe, pushing for action and clarity on behalf of the residents, and putting the issue to the attention of the government.

I’m very glad that Lee Rowley, the Building Safety Minister, paid a visit to Cardinal Lofts yesterday to see the issue first-hand and meet with residents.

He had a brief encounter with the freeholder as well, and he was very robust in making it clear that the situation is totally unacceptable. The Minister has been committed to action on this issue since I raised it to him last month.

I understand that Michael Gove, the Housing Secretary, has been keeping an eye on Railpen for some time and is looking into some of their properties not just here in Ipswich, but all over England.

I previously met with the Secretary of State, as well as the Building Safety Minister, to discuss Cardinal Lofts, and I’m confident that the government is taking the issue seriously. I’ve also continued to have meetings with Railpen and the Fire Service to get updates that I can pass onto residents.

As of now, we still lack a timeline for how long residents are going to be out of their homes. It’s essential that the evicted residents are given this clarity – it's already been far too long.

Longer-term, I am continuing to call for a legally-binding code of practice for building management, which should make sure the legal framework is in place to ensure building managers uphold their duty of care.

When I met with Michael Gove, he was absolutely right in describing the behaviour of these managers as the “unacceptable face of capitalism.” The existing laws are in need of an overhaul.

As I wrote in my previous column, we need clear standards in place for how residents are treated by building managers during remediation works.

What’s happening here in Ipswich is happening elsewhere across the country, and there will be more examples in future. The need for the government to rethink the regulatory framework will only increase.

We should never have gotten here in the first place, and increasingly it looks like this disastrous situation could have been prevented if the repairs had been done when the problem was first identified. Getting the building safe and giving certainty to residents comes first. But when the dust settles, there will need to be accountability as well.