'Like a prison cell': Tower block families 'trapped behind suffocating plastic'

Residents in St Francis Tower in Ipswich are outraged after the entire building has been wrapped in plastic

Residents in St Francis Tower in Ipswich are outraged after the entire building has been wrapped in plastic. From left to right: Luke Ren, Caroline Haydon-Knowell and Rand Moore - Credit: ELLA WILKINSON

At the darkest points of lockdown, despite living in a building with flammable cladding, former Ipswich PA Caroline Haydon-Knowell tried to look on the bright side. Her apartment was on the 15th floor, with an enviable view across town. 

That was until she woke up one morning in May in semi-darkness - her connection to the outside world suddenly replaced by a thick sheet of plastic shrinkwrap.

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

The new material, installed at the 17-storey St Francis Tower, is understood to form part of work to replace cladding which failed fire safety tests after the Grenfell disaster.

Problems with the block’s cladding were revealed by this newspaper in 2018 after its owners carried out independent assessments.

‘Dark, gloomy and extremely depressing’

Ms Haydon-Knowell claims the wrap restricts light and air flow and that it arrived last month with no warning from the building’s managing agents, who are yet to respond officially to residents’ complaints.

“You can’t tell what the weather is like outside, it feels suffocating and oppressive. It’s like living in a prison cell. It is dark, and gloomy, and extremely depressing,” she added.

Tenants living in St Francis Tower said they woke up in semi-darkness after the plastic was installed

Tenants living in St Francis Tower said they woke up in semi-darkness after the plastic was installed - Credit: PAUL AGER

Concerned about the mental health of her neighbours, many of whom live alone, the 53-year-old wants windows to be cut out of the plastic wrap to allow people to see outside.

It is an idea originally tabled by a group of residents at flats in Gosport, near Portsmouth, who endured more than a year behind similar plastic sheeting.

“Without being able to see anything outside, you feel disconnected from the environment, which is exacerbated after the long periods of lockdown and lack of connection to the local community,” Ms Haydon-Knowell added. 

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“We feel as though we are trapped inside shrinkwrap and this has a detrimental effect on mental health. This is particularly alarming to anyone who is housebound, suffering poor health, unable to go outside much, and especially to young children.”

Residents have been left in shock after the entirety of St Francis Tower in Ipswich has been wrapped in plastic

Residents have been left in shock after the entirety of St Francis Tower in Ipswich has been wrapped in plastic - Credit: ELLA WILKINSON

Ms Haydon-Knowell says she is not alone with her concerns and has rallied together a group of residents who feel the same. 

She says she has made Ipswich’s MP, Tom Hunt, and the building’s managing agents, Block Management UK Ltd, aware of the group’s fears and is demanding answers over how long the sheeting will stay up.

Representatives for Block Management did not comment when contacted by this newspaper, while Mr Hunt said he would be glad to meet tenants and inspect the sheeting himself from the inside.

Interior view of the plastic wrap covering St Francis Tower in Ipswich

Interior view of the plastic wrap covering St Francis Tower in Ipswich - Credit: CAROLINE HAYDON-KNOWELL

Ms Haydon-Knowell claims to have been told by the building’s site manager that the wrap could stay on for up to 18 months. Block Management is yet to clarify how long it is due to be in place.

‘I’m hoping to move out’

Paul Ager, 37, rents a studio flat on the ninth floor. He said he was shocked when the material first went up, and fears what conditions will be like in the flats come winter, when it is dark most of the time.

“The light is dulled and it becomes dark very quickly,” he said. 

Tenants at St Francis Tower in Ipswich are outraged after the entire building has been wrapped in plastic sheeting

Tenants at St Francis Tower in Ipswich are outraged after the entire building has been wrapped in plastic sheeting. From left to right: Luke Ren, Caroline Haydon-Knowell and Rand Moore - Credit: ELLA WILKINSON

“I think it will hit me in the winter, when it’s dark pretty much all the time. I’m hoping to move out before then.”

He also said he had not received communication about the shrinkwrap, and that he too had been told it may stay up for 18 months.

“The only letters I’ve had are about problems with rubbish. I haven’t received anything about this,” he added.

“If it’s got to be this way, I don’t understand the logic of why it will have to stay on for so long.”

Plastic sheeting covering St Francis Tower in Ipswich

Plastic sheeting covering St Francis Tower in Ipswich - view from inside the flats - Credit: PAUL AGER

Ms Haydon-Knowell said she had managed to get in touch with an employee at Block Management who confirmed they were investigating her concerns.

She is planning on putting together a petition highlighting their plight over the coming days.

Thousands of people in Ipswich, including tenants and leaseholders, are so far impacted by the so-called cladding scandal.

St Francis Tower: A timeline 

In July 2018, following the Grenfell fire disaster which claimed 72 lives, St Francis Tower’s owners carried out an independent fire test. Assessors found its HPL cladding posed a risk. 

By August, additional safety measures – including a 24-hour waking watch which saw four workers employed to help evacuate residents in the event of a fire – had been installed. 

The following month, work began to strip cladding from the block. 

In early 2019 sprinkler, air vent and fire alarm systems were installed, and plans were drawn up for the new cladding. 

Removal work hit a hurdle later that year when gaping holes were discovered under the cladding and problems with windows were identified – meaning around 45% of it had to stay on. 

As of spring 2021, work is under way to remove the rest and roll out fire safety improvements.

- Read more coverage of cladding issues on the Archant Investigations Unit Facebook page

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