'It feels lawless' - Spike in crime at tower block encased in shrink wrap

Caroline Haydon-Knowell who lives in St Francis Tower block in Ipswich

The view from behind the shrink wrap at St Francis Tower - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Having to step over drug users and smashed glass to get out of the building is now second-nature for St Francis Tower tenant Caroline Haydon-Knowell. 

The 53-year-old moved into a one-bed flat at the Ipswich city centre block in July 2020.  

Ten months later, in May 2021, the block was encased in shrink wrap and scaffolding after it was found to be harbouring cladding “more flammable than Grenfell”.

Works to replace the cladding are not expected to be complete until at least December 2022.  

Ms Haydon-Knowell said antisocial behaviour and crime had been a problem at the block before the cladding crisis took hold, but had rocketed since.  

“You just get used to it”, the mum said. “Once, when my daughter was here, she was woken up at 2am by someone banging on one of our neighbours’ doors and two people screaming at each other.  

“She was terrified, but I slept through the whole thing. 

“When the scaffolding went up it got worse. It's such a miserable and oppressive environment. 

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“There are always police cars outside, or you see groups of officers running up and down the stairs. It feels lawless at times.” 

Caroline Haydon-Knowell who lives in St Francis Tower block in Ipswich PICTURE: CHARLOTTE BOND

Caroline Haydon-Knowell who lives in St Francis Tower block in Ipswich PICTURE: CHARLOTTE BOND - Credit: Charlotte Bond

She claimed drug users hanging out in the laundry room, stairwells and by the bin store was a common occurrence — and that fly-tipping, criminal damage and vandalism were also an “accepted” part of life for tenants. 

There have also been police raids. One of Ms Haydon-Knowell's neighbours, 50-year-old Rand Moore, had his door broken down and his flat searched by police a month into his tenancy in October 2020 after he said a criminal mistakenly gave them his address. 

Fifteen months on he is still waiting for a new, secure fire door. His letting agent, Pauline Scott Property Management, said one had been ordered and was on the way. 

“Some of the stuff that happens here is crazy”, Mr Moore said. 

Rand Moore's door was broken into 15 months ago, and still hasn't been replaced

Rand Moore's door was broken into 15 months ago, and still hasn't been replaced - Credit: Caroline Haydon-Knowell

St Francis's managing agent, BMUK, which does not own the block but runs it on behalf of the leaseholders and the freeholder, said tenants had been evicted in 2018 and 2019 for prostitution and antisocial behaviour, but that legislation introduced during the pandemic had made it difficult for landlords to get rid of troublesome renters. 

They said indoor CCTV footage from across 2020 and 2021 showed people in the block injecting drugs, chasing each other with fire extinguishers and smearing excrement up the walls. 

But they added that the scaffolding had created CCTV blackspots — meaning it was hard to track down the culprits responsible. 

Police said they were monitoring the block as a priority and were carrying out regular visits.  

In January this year, they said officers had met with the letting agent who manages 82 of the 116 flats in the block — Pauline Scott Property Management — about a cuckooed address, which is when drug dealers take over the home of a vulnerable person to use it as a base for county lines operations. 

Drug paraphernalia in the communal areas is a common sight for St Francis Tower' tenants

Drug paraphernalia in the communal areas is a common sight for St Francis Tower' tenants - Credit: Supplied

A spokesman for the force said: “The block is composed of a variety of landlords and letting agencies, so resolving the issues is challenging and requires support and momentum from everyone. 

“We fully appreciate the distress ASB and criminality is having on the residents there and they should rest assured that robust action will be taken where necessary.” 

Dedicated police call-outs to Franciscan Way, where the block is located, have also more than doubled. 

Between May and December 2020, there were 14 police call-outs to the site, three of which were for violence and sexual offences.  

But over that same period in 2021 the total number of call-outs jumped to 32, with 17 relating to violence and sexual offences specifically — an almost five-fold increase on the year before. 

Rand Moore and Caroline Haydon-Knowell live in St Francis Tower, Ipswich

Rand Moore and Caroline Haydon-Knowell live in St Francis Tower, Ipswich - Credit: ELLA WILKINSON

For 38-year-old tenant Paul Ager, one of the issues is that block maintenance has near-enough stalled since leaseholders began to be billed thousands of pounds in service charges for cladding project contributions

He said one of the lifts has been out of service for over a year and the other breaks constantly. 

“When the place doesn’t look nice, people don’t respect it”, Mr Ager explained. “It’s disheartening but I don’t blame people. 

“Tenants are right down the bottom of the list in this situation. It’s not good for anyone’s mental health.” 

Caroline Haydon-Knowell who lives in St Francis Tower block in Ipswich PICTURE: CHARLOTTE BOND

The view from behind the shrink wrap - Credit: Charlotte Bond

‘Hard working professionals’ 

BMUK said their contract was with leaseholders, not tenants, and that it made sense to hold off on “overdue” refurbishments of the internal communal areas until the cladding project was complete.  

They said adding security would be also costly for leaseholders, while lift replacement could see them lumped with a bill of between £250-400k. 

But they stressed that vandalism didn’t help the situation. 

Tenants say the scaffolding is always full of rubbish due to people throwing it out their windows from above

Tenants say the scaffolding is always full of rubbish due to people throwing it out their windows from above - Credit: Caroline Haydon-Knowell

"Damage caused by vandalism may take more time than tenants hope for when the damage is subject to an insurance claim”, their spokesman said. 

Duncan Scott, who runs Pauline Scott Property Management, said cheap rents at the block had always led to a high turnover of tenants, many of whom were contractors on six-month placements with local companies — but that most were “hard working professionals”. 

“We vet our tenants very thoroughly”, he said. “We have junior doctors, NHS workers and BT contractors living at the block. 

“If there is an issue with one of our tenants relating to a criminal record we will liaise with the police and take action accordingly.” 

Tenants say seeing police outside the building is a common sight at St Francis Tower

Tenants say seeing police outside the building is a common sight at St Francis Tower - Credit: Caroline Haydon-Knowell

A spokesman for Ipswich Borough Council said if tenants at the block think the works are causing their homes to be “uninhabitable” they should contact environmental health. 

St Francis Tower: a timeline 

-July 2018: 72 people are killed and 70 injured in the Grenfell Tower fire in London. 

-August 2018: The owners of St Francis Tower discovered similar fire safety issues after commissioning tests following the disaster, and a 24-hour waking watch is put in place. 

-September 2018: Workers begin stripping the cladding from the block, and in early 2019 sprinklers, air vents and fire alarm systems are installed.  

-May 2020: Ministers launch the Building Safety Fund to help cover leaseholders’ costs, which in St Francis Tower were reaching £27k each for cladding replacement. St Francis Tower qualifies for funding, which brings costs down to £9k per flat for leaseholders.

-May 2021: Contractors put up scaffolding and shrink wrap around the block while remedial works are completed .

Caroline Haydon-Knowell who lives in St Francis Tower block in Ipswich PICTURE: CHARLOTTE BOND

The block has been wrapped in plastic for months while work is carried out to remove flammable cladding - Credit: Charlotte Bond

-June 2021: This newspaper reports on the living conditions of the tenants’ affected, with the works blocking out daylight. 

-2022: The scaffolding and wrap remain in place to this day, and is not expected to come down until December 2022. 

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