New cladding for tower block as £3.6m court battle rumbles on

Cladding replacement work has begun on St Francis Tower in Ipswich. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

Cladding replacement work has begun on St Francis Tower in Ipswich. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown - Credit: Archant

Work is underway to replace flammable cladding at one of Ipswich’s tallest residential blocks – three years after problems were first uncovered. 

Scaffolding went up at the 52m-high St Francis Tower, in Franciscan Way, in March and now contractors are on site to remove the remaining cladding material – a high pressure laminate (HPL), different to that on Grenfell –which had been covering around 45% of the building. 

The current owners of the block first discovered a fire safety issue in summer 2018 when, following the Grenfell disaster, they commissioned an independent test and found its HPL cladding posed a risk. 

They were not required to by the Government, because the material was not Grenfell-style.

Cladding is being removed from St Francis Tower in Ipswich Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Cladding is being removed from St Francis Tower in Ipswich Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

Around 55% of the cladding was removed in winter 2018/19, but gaping holes left around windows pushed back efforts to remove the rest.  

Now work to replace it is finally under way, with contractors Oander liaising with owners R G Securities (No. 2) Ltd, managing agents Block Management UK, Ipswich Borough Council and Suffolk’s fire service to roll out safety improvements. 

In 2018, a tribunal heard the HPL material on St Francis Tower, if ignited, had the ability to produce two-thirds more heat than petrol. The judge said “the risk to life was intolerable”.  

It has since emerged in planning documents submitted to Ipswich Borough Council that the tower also had Kingspan phenolic insulation installed.

The firm's K15 insulation was used in part of the flammable cladding system mounted on to Grenfell, an inquiry into the disaster heard.

A post on Oander’s website describes their work at St Francis Tower as replacing “defective or missing fire compartmentation”, installing a new smoke vent for the fire escape stairwell, and rolling out a new radio wireless fire alarm system and sprinkler system in each of the block’s 116 flats. 

Cladding replacement work has begun on St Francis Tower in Ipswich. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

Cladding replacement work has begun on St Francis Tower in Ipswich. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown - Credit: Archant

The original cladding and insulation are due to be replaced with a “fire compliant” external wall insulation system, using a material made from stone wool. 

The building’s owner, managing agents, and those doing the work remain tight-lipped on the value of the project, as a legal battle rumbles on over who pays for the repairs.  

In October last year, insurance giants Allianz reached a settlement in their £3.6million lawsuit with St Francis Tower’s owners via a Tomlin Order at the High Court, over claims the firm did not pay out under an insurance contract for expected costs of the renovation work. Details of the settlement were not disclosed. 

Last June, a judge threw out a bid from another contractor, R. Maskell Ltd, to prevent the case facing a future trial. 

Leaseholders of flats in the building say they are unable to comment due to ongoing legal action.

Some owners had been facing bills of up to £25,000 per flat.

Philip with Ipswich MP Tom Hunt and fellow St Francis Tower campaigner Michele Picture: PHILIP MARIC

St Francis Tower leaseholder Philip with Ipswich MP Tom Hunt and fellow campaigner Michele, pictured at a pre-Covid Westminster march over cladding bills Picture: PHILIP MARICIC - Credit: PHILIP MARICIC

Under the Building Safety Fund, set up after Grenfell and boosted to £3.5bn in February, the Government has said leaseholders in blocks over 18m will no longer have to pay for cladding repairs. 

However, the Ipswich Cladiators group is continuing to fight for amendments to the Fire Safety Bill, backed by the town's MP Tom Hunt, the terms of which currently mean leaseholders could be made to pay for non-cladding fire safety measures.

St Francis Tower: A timeline 

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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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