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Cladding dangers discovered at Suffolk’s tallest building before Grenfell ‘kept quiet’, worried tenants claim

PUBLISHED: 05:30 21 October 2020 | UPDATED: 16:04 21 October 2020

A fire expert warned that parts of The Mill, Ipswich, was wrapped in combustible cladding back in 2014, it can be revealed  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

A fire expert warned that parts of The Mill, Ipswich, was wrapped in combustible cladding back in 2014, it can be revealed Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Archant

Flat owners have spoken of their fear at living in Ipswich Waterfront apartments wrapped in combustible cladding – and claim safety problems were “kept quiet” over several years.

Fire experts warned in 2014 that cladding on The Mill in College Street was so unsafe that all residents should be moved out.

But flat owners and tenants claim they have been kept in the dark and say they still do not know the full extent of the risks six years on.

The 2014 expert report exposed cladding flaws in three areas of the main white, red and yellow Mill building – which reaches 232ft (71m) in height and is Suffolk’s tallest.

Defects were also found in block D2 of the smaller Mill House, opposite the main white complex.

Some of the combustible polystyrene material wrapping The Mill, on Ipswich's College Street, fell to the ground on the Waterfront in St Jude's Storm in 2013. Picture: TOMMY VOWLESSome of the combustible polystyrene material wrapping The Mill, on Ipswich's College Street, fell to the ground on the Waterfront in St Jude's Storm in 2013. Picture: TOMMY VOWLES

Expanded polystyrene insulation (EPS) material wrapping “substantial” parts of the development, some of which was torn from apartments overlooking the Waterfront during St Jude’s Storm in 2013, was found to be combustible.

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

Since the 2014 report, Wharfside’s administrators, RSM UK, say they have spent around £1.4million to remedy the problems – with a further £400,000 budgeted for in 2020.

But they would not specify what this money has been spent on, nor if all of the safety recommendations from the 2014 report have been implemented.

Our investigation has found that parts of the building are still wrapped in the cladding, while a total of £13m has been spent, since 2010, by the developer’s administrators in legal costs – nine times as much as has been spent on the remedial work.

Three blocks of main white, yellow and red Mill building were found to have cladding defects in the 2014 report Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNThree blocks of main white, yellow and red Mill building were found to have cladding defects in the 2014 report Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

One person – acting on behalf of more than a dozen “worried and concerned” residents – said: “We have an unsafe site; an EWS1 report (fire review of external walls) has confirmed this. It’s obvious that people have known for some time that the cladding system is completely unsafe, and it has been kept quiet.

“To date, we have not been advised who is paying for all the works required, no-one has told us the full extent of the risks and no-one has explained why flat owners have not been kept up to date.”

• Cladding system ‘combustible’ with low fire rating, report finds

The fire expert’s report said the insulation material, used in the external cladding, had a fire rating of European class ‘E’ - classed in the UK as a ‘very high-risk material’ with a ‘high’ contribution to fire.

Polystyrene material wrapping The Mill, Ipswich, was found to be combustible - fire chiefs say no-one is currently living in the highest two blocks  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNPolystyrene material wrapping The Mill, Ipswich, was found to be combustible - fire chiefs say no-one is currently living in the highest two blocks Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Its use on blocks over 18m was banned after the Grenfell disaster in 2017.

Grenfell’s cladding panels, initially said to have ‘limited contribution’ to fire, turned out to have been downgraded to class E before the devastating blaze.

Fire-stopping material between flats and openings for windows and vents was also missing from blocks at The Mill in 2014, the absence of which experts say can accelerate the spread of fire.

Future costs of repair work are expected to be significantly higher than the £1.4m spent so far, administrator Steven Law said, but the firm would not specify what further works are planned.

The 2014 report recommended that additional CCTV be rolled out, plus 24-hour security, removal of rubbish in communal areas, fire detectors in each room and information sheets for residents.

The Mill, the highest building in East Anglia, saw the former Cranfield Mill revamped into Waterfront apartments at the turn of the financial crisis Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNThe Mill, the highest building in East Anglia, saw the former Cranfield Mill revamped into Waterfront apartments at the turn of the financial crisis Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

• Residents’ safety our ‘absolute priority’, say owners

Mr Law said fire safety assessments are carried out annually across The Mill complex.

He added that although the most recent inspection does not reveal anything new beyond the issues identified in 2014, recommendations from it are being followed.

“The safety and wellbeing of the tenants at The Mill remain our absolute priority,” he added.

The prominent Mill building can be seen for miles Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNThe prominent Mill building can be seen for miles Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

“The significant remedial work that has been undertaken on site to date is to ensure their safety is not only maintained, but also enhanced, and these measures are under constant review.”

Flat owners say ‘waking watch’ teams – workers hired around-the-clock to evacuate in the event of a fire – were seen at the site this summer.

Fire service chiefs said they had been told by the administrators that remedial work, including CCTV, has been rolled out to monitor the fire safety arrangements in the building.

But they said this excludes the two highest blocks, A1 (22 storeys) and A2 (16 storeys), which are not currently occupied as they require further remedial work and cladding removal.

The 2014 report states that in the event of a blaze, spread would be so rapid that residents would be “unlikely to receive sufficient prior warning of the fire to evacuate safely - even if an alarm is raised immediately”.

It recommends “the safest solution to reduce the risk would be to move the occupants out of the occupied blocks immediately,” but adds this may not be the most practical option.

• Millions spent on legal settlements

In total, £13m has been spent in legal costs linked to the cladding repairs since 2010, when administrators where appointed to handle Wharfside’s affairs.

Court battles have ensued between owners and contractors hired to construct the block in the first place over who pays for the repairs.

Details about The Mill and its external cladding system have been submitted to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s information system, as the affected blocks are over 18m, fire service bosses added.

A joint borough council and fire spokesman said: “The management company (of The Mill) confirm they have CCTV systems to assist with the management of the fire safety arrangements of the complex.

“A programme of fire safety audits, site inspections and data gathering is in progress for high rise residential buildings in Ipswich by Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS).

“Both Ipswich Borough Council and SFRS continue to liaise with high-rise building owners and management companies to protect the safety of the residents.”

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt says he has been contacted by flat owners in The Mill and is planning on taking their cases forward.

He is also representing leaseholders at another Ipswich block hit by cladding issues, St Francis Tower.

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