St Francis Tower families 'treated like animals', MP tells Parliament

Tom Hunt, MP for Ipswich, has penned a letter to the housing minister about St Francis Tower

Tom Hunt, MP for Ipswich, raised the situation at St Francis Tower in the House of Commons - Credit: ELLA WILKINSON/HOUSE OF COMMONS

The plight of families in a tower block wrapped in plastic is now on the national agenda after Ipswich’s MP raised the issue in Parliament.

Tom Hunt spoke in Thursday’s summer adjournment debate about St Francis Tower, the first block in the UK to receive Building Safety Fund cash to remove dangerous cladding since the Grenfell disaster.

It is currently covered in plastic wrapping which the 16-storey block’s managing agents Block Management UK Ltd (BMUK) say is there to protect the building from the weather and workers from injury.

While recognising the importance of replacing the cladding, allegedly more flammable than that on Grenfell, tenants have complained of “prison-like conditions” with a lack of sunlight and air they say is affecting their health.

Caroline Haydon-Knowell, who lives on the 15th floor, said this week’s sweltering temperatures have made matters worse: "It is an awful, stifling, suffocating experience we now live with as the weather has got so scorchingly hot."

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

Mr Hunt told MPs the situation was "absolutely shocking" and described a lack of communication from those in charge of the block as "deeply disturbing".

He said around 100 of his constituents are affected with many of them going through "great distress", adding: "They are being treated like animals".

“They have virtually no natural light, they are living in small flats, one-bedroom, no balconies - in the middle of a pandemic, in a hot summer," he told the Commons.

“To make it even worse... they weren’t informed this was going to happen."

While the majority of leaseholders were informed about the wrapping in April, BMUK admitted some tenants had not received "sufficient" warning.

This newspaper’s investigations team first uncovered the problem in early June and BMUK took a month to respond to residents’ fears - confirming measures could be in place for more than a year.

Bosses also said health and safety requirements meant window restrictors had to be fitted.

MPs debated the Government’s response to the growing building safety crisis after Grenfell - the Building Safety Bill - on Wednesday afternoon.

The freeholder and managing agents of a central Ipswich tower block are facing calls to respond to residents

The block's managing agents (director and operations director are top left and bottom right) responded to residents' concerns after a month of asking - Credit: ARCHANT/BLOCK MANAGEMENT UK LTD/OFFICE OF TOM HUNT MP

Ministers said it will deliver the biggest overhaul in building safety in 40 years with the Government using a £5billion pot to help those in the tallest unsafe blocks.

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“We do hope that through things like the Building Safety Fund there’s going to be a lot of this work carried out... dangerous cladding needs to be removed," Mr Hunt added.

“But we need to do this in a way that is sensitive to the quality of life and the mental health of those who are living in those structures and we need to have a debate.

“I would like to work with the Government in holding to account Block Management to support my constituents who are at the moment going through great distress, they are being treated like animals.”

Alex Dickin, of fire safety campaigners Ipswich Cladiators, said that if the situation at St Francis Tower is to change, the rules and guidance must change first.

“The rules that allowed such terrible conditions on a residential building are a reflection of the out-of-touch leaders and their inability to come up with a reasonable solution,” he added.

“St Francis Tower is an example of the painfully slow progress made in remediating buildings. 

Alex Dickin of the Ipswich Cladiators group, set up to fight cladding scandal of unsafe flats. Pict

Alex Dickin of the newly created Ipswich Cladiators group, set up to fight the cladding crisis in the town - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

“Funding was approved three years after the discovery of flammable material and the project to start removal has only just started."

Mr Hunt told the Commons he was "disturbed" that BMUK had not responded directly for six to seven weeks despite interventions from himself and the local media, including this newspaper and BBC Radio Suffolk.

He vowed to keep raising the issue in Parliament until those in charge meet with residents.

Block Management’s Director David Collinson and Operations Director Simon Matthews said:  “Block Management UK were instrumental in securing funding from the Building Safety Fund in order for the necessary cladding remediation works to be carried out for the safety of the tower’s residents, and to avoid the huge financial impact that would otherwise be placed on flat owners.

“Following the terrible consequences of the Grenfell Tower fire, obtaining this grant from central government is something we have strived for over many years. In fact, St Francis Tower was the first private residential block in the UK to receive government funding.

“As Mr Hunt mentioned, we too understand how important it is to undertake these works to remove the dangerous cladding as soon and as quickly as possible.

“While Block Management manage the cladding project-related communications with residents at St Francis Tower, the remedial works on the cladding are being managed by a separate project management company and contractor.

“So, whilst we manage the building’s communal areas in general, this is a specialist project for the appropriate contractors and specialist project managers to undertake, along with other interested parties. Therefore, we would like to clarify that Block Management only have a limited role in this project, which needs to be acknowledged and understood.

“As part of our communications role however, and as Mr Hunt referred to, we shall be meeting with him in the near future to discuss the concerns that he has raised.

“While Block Management are not responsible for the external building improvements, as these issues were mentioned in respect to our company, we would like to take this opportunity to address some of them. These were also shared as part of our obligation to update leaseholders and residents.

“The protective wrap is used for several reasons. It creates a safer working environment for the contractors working at height and reduces the risk of injury or loss of life. It allows the render to be applied in all weather conditions and during the winter months; without it the works on the building would take significantly longer and this would also have a detrimental impact on residents.

“The protective wrap includes strategically placed gaps located to allow air to circulate sufficiently whilst not impacting the wind-loadings of the scaffold design.

“The guidance from the UK Government’s Health and Safety Executive for windows within a tower block where a risk of falling objects exists, is for window openings to be restricted to 10cm. The placement of the scaffolding poles are no more restrictive than the safety measures already in place.”

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