‘Crazy’ bill for tower block fire marshals came ‘out of the blue’

Angry neighbours are teaming up to fight “gigantic” bills for 24/7 fire marshals in an apartment block feared to have unsafe cladding.

Tom Hunt hopes Ipswich will be able to open up again after the second lockdown. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Tom Hunt hopes Ipswich will be able to open up again after the second lockdown. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

Cardinal Lofts, on Ipswich Waterfront, is being patrolled 24 hours a day after a fire assessment last month raised concern about “combustible” material on the upper floors.

Now owners are facing a £300,000-a-year bill – equivalent to £5,600 per week – to pay for the new fire safety measures, which they say came “out of the blue” as a 2018 report stated the fire risk was “minimal”.

Flat owner Claire Hamblion said: “Out of the blue, I had a fire action notice pushed under my door late on a Friday evening. The next day, we had these fire marshals in the building.

“A couple of hours later, an email dropped into my inbox telling us we as residents were all liable to pay for it.

“We don’t know the whole story, not all of the fire reports have been shared with us.

“People are angry – they don’t want to pay for this, we don’t feel we’ve been assured the building is so unsafe it needs 24/7 patrols around it. It is absolutely insane, and the cost is just crazy.”

MORE: Fire marshals patrol Ipswich flats 24/7 amid cladding fears

A fire risk assessment in 2018 found cladding on the building which needed further inspection.

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It said that a type of cladding called aluminium composite material (ACM) could be present, but concluded the building was of “minimal risk”.

Following the Grenfell tragedy in 2017, certain types of cladding were banned on blocks over 18 metres. Cardinal Lofts is 32m high.

The most recent inspection in October said there were “potentially large amounts of combustible materials forming part of the external wall build-up”.

It also found there was a lack of material to stop fire within the external walls, meaning a blaze would spread faster.

“There appears to be no cavity barriers and potential poor to non-existent fire stopping in the external build-up, particularly at levels 5 and above,” it said.

In a letter to leaseholders last week, Block Management UK, which runs the property, said the building’s owner had applied for government funding to fix the cladding.

A spokesman said: “We sympathise with leaseholders having to pay for any façade project related works, especially those safety risk mitigating measures like waking watch that have to be put in place at short notice.

“Residents’ safety is the number one priority, the waking watch decision was made by our client based on National Fire Chief’s Council guidance and the approved competent fire risk assessor’s advice following the safety report our client commissioned.

“A waking watch is required when a ‘stay put defend in place’ fire strategy can no longer be maintained.”

MORE: £25k bills to replace flammable tower block cladding branded ‘enormous’ by MP in letter

But flat owners are faced with paying £44,000 between them for the fire patrols before the end of the year.

“Some might not even be able to pay,” Ms Hamblion added.

“What we’re really scared of is people losing their homes – on the Waterfront, the jewel in the crown of Ipswich, you’ll have scores of people having their homes repossessed.”

MORE: Families left in tower block with ‘highly flammable’ cladding amid court row over who pays

More than 30 people either living in the block or with buy-to-let properties have rallied together to fight the costs so far.

Julianne Woor and Craig Bennett also live in the block.

The pair, aged 31 and 30, say the situation left them feeling “completely helpless”.

“It’s a lot of money to ask for from people, particularly with everything that’s going on at the moment. It’s really stressful,” Ms Woor added.

“It’s even more infuriating from our point of view because the official report from 2018 says there are minimal issues. I don’t understand why suddenly it’s not safe.”

Sarah Cushion, who has a buy-to-let flat in the block, said there are now dozens of owners banding together to get the issues addressed, after it was reported by this newspaper last week.

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt plans to raise the case in Parliament and said: “I was as shocked as everyone else by this development at Cardinal Lofts, and I am looking at ways of raising this up the government’s agenda, working with other MPs to do so.”

A Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service spokesman said it would not be the responsibility of the fire service to recommend the 24/7 marshals – this was done by an independent fire specialist.

Officers are due to audit the building next month as part of a national review and recommended residents follow the guidance set out by the management company, calling 999 in an emergency.

MORE: Cladding dangers discovered at Suffolk’s tallest building before Grenfell ‘kept quiet’

The spokesman added: “(Residents should) follow any instructions given by the waking watch whose role is to investigate any fire alarm sounding, contact the fire service and evacuate the floors in question.”

‘My life’s work has been wiped out’

Elsewhere on the Waterfront, The Mill – revealed to have cladding problems by this newspaper last month – looks set to be taken over by another firm.

Administrators have overseen the site in College Street for a decade, after the original owner collapsed during the 2009 financial crisis.

Earlier this year, they reached a court settlement to help pay for cladding repairs.

But administrators are now in talks with buyers to sell the site, which would see responsibility for fixing the cladding transferred to the new owner.

One flat owner is struggling to sell his property because of the fire safety issues and fears the sale of the firm will cause further delays.

Polystyrene insulation wrapping “substantial” parts of the development was deemed combustible by a fire expert.

MORE: Housing minister’s ‘shock’ at Grenfell inquiry evidence of ‘unethical’ acts by Suffolk firm

“You have a pot of money for the cladding repairs, and it’s just sitting there until the new buyers take over,” he said.

“It’s a really unpleasant and stressful situation.

“My sale has stalled because I can’t get a report stating the building is fire safe.

“This is my livelihood; my life’s work has just been wiped out.”

Steven Law, of administrators RSM UK, previously said around £1.4million has been spent to remedy the issues, adding that the safety of those living at The Mill remains their top priority.

He confirmed the intention is to sell the site in the near future, adding: “We aim to seek best offers from potential buyers as soon as possible.

“The terms and nature of a sale will dictate how any remaining remediation works are funded.”

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