Disabled tenants living without lifts at 'hellish' 16-storey tower block
- Credit: Charlotte Bond/ Submitted
Tenants living in shrink-wrapped St Francis Tower in Ipswich say the suffocating vinyl plastic encasing their building is just one of a long list of problems that make living there "hellish".
An investigation by this newspaper has found the cladding remediation works taking place on the Ipswich town centre high-rise are for many tenants the least of their worries.
With one lift out of action for months at a time and the other "breaking down almost daily", disabled tenants are having to rely on others to help them up hundreds of stairs.
Mums say they have to single-handedly drag their babies' prams to their high-level flats, or wait at the bottom for assistance from neighbours.
One parent, who did not want to be identified, said: "If you leave the pram unattended, you can guarantee someone waiting outside the building who knows the code will come in and pinch it."
Tenants have also claimed stepping over dumped rubbish, drug users and rough sleepers on their way in and out of the block is routine – and claim people who do not live there wait for an opportunity to "sneak in".
They say the complex ownership structure at the building is leaving tenants "at the bottom of the pile", with nobody willing to take responsibility for their suffering.
Tenants who live in the 16-storey tower pay rent to their landlords, who own the flats on a leasehold basis and pay ground rent to the freeholder, R G Securities (No. 2).
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Leaseholders then pay service charges to the managing agent, BMUK, which takes care of communal maintenance on the freeholder's behalf.
But because leaseholders are already facing high costs for building safety works after St Francis Tower was found to have cladding "more flammable than Grenfell", the freeholder does not want to bill them for lift replacement or the installation of a security team.
Ross Bonner, the leaseholder of four buy-to-let flats in the building, said he was already paying the “maximum” he could afford – and was still in £46k service charge arrears.
He stressed any more charges levied by the managing agent and freeholder would lead to financial ruin.
‘Most of the issues are caused directly by tenants’
According to BMUK, which takes £51,000 in management fees from leaseholders, replacing the lifts is impossible, as it would cost flat owners between £350-500k, while the recruitment of 24-hour security guards would be equally expensive.
But its spokeswoman said there is also no obligation for the freeholder to guarantee functional lifts, and that it is up to individual letting agents and tenants to make sure they are not placed on high storeys if they cannot use the stairs.
She added that there wouldn't be so many issues at the block if tenants treated the building with respect – and the lifts and communal areas weren't constantly trashed.
"Most of the issues are caused directly by tenants and the people the tenants directly invite into the building", she said.
“BMUK has copious evidence tenants are responsible for the majority of the vandalism.
“We also have a video of a known tenant smashing walls in communal areas and kicking one of the lifts. We understand they are soon to be evicted.”
But tenant Caroline Haydon-Knowell said vandalism “wasn’t in residents’ interests”.
She said: "I just can’t get my head around the idea that people in this building are trashing their own facilities. It makes no sense.
"But even so, it's not an excuse for BMUK to deflect responsibility."
‘The situation is horrendous’
Real estate giant Regis Group Holdings, the majority shareholder of R G Securities (No. 2), states on its website it has invested in assets worth over $25bn.
When this newspaper contacted the company for comment, asking if they would be willing to fund the replacement of the lifts instead of the leaseholders, we received no acknowledgement or response.
Tenant Jamie has been living at the block for two years - while neighbouring couple Carl and Amy have been there for four.
"The situation here is absolutely horrendous", said 44-year-old Jamie, who did not want to reveal his last name.
"I'm on my fourth hernia. Walking up and down from the 12th floor is agony and takes me forever.
"The lifts are no good. I've been stuck in there three times since I got here. Other people have been trapped in there for hours, but I can't stand it - I just end up forcing the doors open."
BMUK said the lift contractor always endeavours to free people trapped within an hour.
Amy, 34, lives with her partner Carl, 31, on the 10th floor.
She said: "I'm my sister's carer, but when she comes here with her baby I've got to help her drag the buggy up ten flights of stairs when the lift's broken. My own health is poor too. I have fluid on my kneecaps which makes walking extremely painful.
"Back when we had the 24-hour Waking Watch security guard patrol, when problems were found with the cladding and we were waiting for the installation of fire alarms, things were much better.
"Nobody was coming in and trashing the place."
Tenants say there are a host of other issues making their lives difficult, such as insufficient bin storage, a broken intercom system and a lack of washing machines in the laundry room, with three currently serving 116 households.
BMUK said there were as many washing machines as could physically be fitted, and that the intercom system was being replaced. It said it the 15 bins outside were rotated regularly, and the "only reason" for rubbish being dumped outside bins is when residents "fly tip" and "don't use them properly".
But Amy stressed that the situation “still felt unfair”.
“I know it's cheap, but we pay our rent, we hold up our end of the bargain”, she said. “It’s like tenants are just stuck at the bottom of the pile.”
‘If people don’t like it they can leave’
Duncan Scott, who owns Pauline Scott Property Management and lets out 80 of the building’s 116 flats, said tenants were all vetted thoroughly, and that he believed the people causing the damage were not residents.
“They go in there to cause damage because they think people can’t see what they’re doing due to the shrink wrap”, he said.
“A lot of people from different backgrounds rent from us in St Francis Tower, and part of their culture is to have a lot of people round. We can’t stop them doing that, but we can evict tenants who admit causing criminal damage, and we will work with BMUK to investigate subletting when it is reported to us.
“Ultimately, though, we aren’t forcing anyone to stay there. If someone complains and says they hate living in the block, we’ll give them their notice and tell them to leave.
"It's up to tenants to decide if are willing to live on a high storey. We always warn them about the lifts.
"From the tenants we let to, only one has ever had a wheelchair and she was on the second floor. But she's moved out now."
He added that the plastic shrink-wrap was having a “pressure cooker” effect on the environment within the block.
“As soon as that wrap comes off things will be different", he said.