St Francis Tower – What we’ve learned about safety of tower block a year on
- Credit: Archant
Thank goodness nobody died – that was the message from Ipswich MP Sandy Martin about fire safety concerns at one of Suffolk’s highest tower blocks.
Stripped of its external cladding after the Grenfell disaster, the 17-storey St Francis Tower has undergone a huge transformation over the past year.
In December, scaffolding is due to go up on the building, with cladding replacement works expected to take place in early 2020 - it was originally hoped that replacement work would commence this month.
Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) bosses say the building is safer following internal and external work, which continues - adding that everyone involved has co-operated to "significantly reduce" any fire risk at the premises.
However, it has not been an easy ride.
In the year since the decision was made to remove the cladding:
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- A tribunal heard the material covering the tower had the ability to produce "two thirds more heat than petrol" if ignited
- Gaping holes found under the cladding meant some of it had to stay on
- Leaseholders were left angry and faced hefty bills for the safety upgrades, of £21,000 per flat and a total cost of £2.4million
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- And there was even a risk the building would be served a prohibition notice, which would have forced all residents to leave their homes, as a tribunal judge warned the "risk to life was intolerable".
There is no longer a risk of a prohibition notice being served, according to the building's owner and managing agents.
'No building control sign off'
A tribunal held in late December last year raised a number of serious concerns about safety at the 116-flat St Francis Tower.
It is important to note that many of the below points have now been rectified.
However, the case of the Ipswich-based tower has since commanded national attention - with top academics using it as an example of the potential dangers of this type of cladding.
Tribunal judge Graham Sinclair's main points included:
- The Reynobond cladding on Grenfell Tower had a fire load of 123 MJ/m2. The high pressure laminate cladding, Trespa Meteon, on St Francis Tower had a fire load of 216 mJ/m2.
- As explained to the tribunal, this means that - if ignited - the Trespa cladding in use on the block had the ability to produce two-thirds more heat than petrol
- The cladding installation was of a poor standard, according to an official report
- It was of 'European class D', which would not meet building regulations now or when it was installed between 2005 and 2007. It is classed in the UK as a 'high risk material'
- A four-man waking watch, in place 24 hours a day to evacuate residents in the event of a fire, was in place at a cost of £10,000 per week
- The block appeared to have no building regulation sign off.
Representatives for the National Housing Building Control, which was appointed as the approved inspector by the original builder in 2005, said there was a failure to notify NHBC that the site was complete and ready for inspection.
A spokesman said: "We chased the builder a number of times, and in March 2016, NHBC was contacted by the builder to say that they were cancelling NHBC's services. Ipswich Borough Council confirmed receipt of a cancellation notice in respect of NHBC services at the development in April 2016 at which point control of the site reverted to the local authority."
The original owner and builder is yet to respond to our requests for comment.
A new freeholder and management company, Block Management UK Ltd, took over the running of the building in 2016.
During the tribunal, held on December 20, 2018, Mr Sinclair also warned that if the required works were not undertaken quickly, firefighters could potentially serving a prohibition notice requiring immediate evacuation - with the risk of insurers declining to provide cover, and invalidating mortgages.
"This is not simply a case where a high-rise residential block has been encased in extremely hazardous cladding material that should never lawfully have been installed," Mr Sinclair told the tribunal.
"Leaseholders are understandably concerned that they are the ones now being asked to pay for staggering failures by those supposed to have the knowledge and/or the formal responsibility for ensuring that the flats were built and the building refurbished so that it was safe, and to a high standard.
"If there is some crumb of comfort here it is that there may be a warranty backed by an insurer worth pursuing, if a suitable case can be made out."
His comments, and the "catalogue of failures" that emerged from the case, prompted an Oxford law professor Susan Bright, to write a blog about residential tower block fire safety post-Grenfell.
It is almost entirely based on St Francis Tower as a case study, and can be read in full here.
What has it been like living in the tower?
One concerned resident, who asked to remain anonymous, described the year living in the block.
"It's been scary at times living in the block and not knowing exactly what's going on," they said.
"Information has been patchy at times.
"Finding out the exact danger we could have been in is just shocking.
"Why weren't proper checks carried out? It beggars belief."
Ipswich MP Sandy Martin, who raised the issue affecting a number of his constituents in the House of Commons, recalled saying privately that it was a shame the building wasn't being demolished altogether.
He told the House of Commons leaseholders had been left in negative equity after cladding was removed from St Francis Tower.
He said: "The value of their flat is actually worth less than the bill hanging over their head for the removal of the cladding.
"I heard from one person who is self-employed and who bought a leasehold flat to provide him with an income when he retires - but now he is faced with a bill he is struggling to afford and it has become a millstone to him."
In a comment piece on the issue, he added: "I can't help feeling that St Francis Tower is yet another example of privatisation that has gone too far - thank goodness in this case nobody died."
Fire alarms, sprinklers and automatic air vent systems were installed at the tower earlier this year.
'Flat prices reducing'
In her blog, Professor Bright raises the issue of high pressure laminate cladding being fixed to high rise buildings.
An HPL system was used on St Francis Tower - but at the time, it was not being routinely tested by the government, even in the wake of Grenfell. However, the management company ordered a test themselves which uncovered serious fire safety concerns.
Government officials did not order tests on HPL cladding systems because a different kind of cladding, aluminium composite materials (ACM), was used on Grenfell.
Experts had been calling for tests on non-ACM cladding since September 2017, a few months after Grenfell, but they were only carried out in July this year.
The government said the HPL material passed the test, but must still be removed if combined with combustible insulation.
Ms Bright also pointed to problems with selling flats.
She said one flat in St Francis Tower sold in August 2012 for £53,500 - yet more than six years later, the same flat has sold for significantly less, even though the block is undergoing remediation.
The Rightmove listing shows it as sold at auction for £41,000 in March - although the same page also says £30,000 STC, she said.
So what happens now?
All of the cladding on the building will be replaced from December onwards, according to the fire service and the building's owners.
They had originally planned to start work in October.
"We remain committed to resolving the issues at St Francis Tower as quickly as possible," representatives for the owner said.
"As a result of the immediate action taken by Block Management UK Ltd (the managing agent since 2016) and RG Securities No2 (the freeholder), there is no longer a risk of SFRS serving a prohibition notice.
"We are continuing to work very closely with SFRS, Ipswich Borough Council, UKAS accredited fire risk assessors and expert surveyors."
In an updated statement issued this morning (Monday, September 30), they added: "Scaffolding is going up in December 2019, and cladding replacement works are scheduled to commence in early 2020."
A fire service spokesman said it has an excellent and productive relationship with all involved in the St Francis Tower case.
"We have all worked together to significantly reduce any fire risk at the premises," the spokesman added.
"Any cladding which currently remains on the building is for additional health and safety reasons, on the advice of a cladding contractor.
"It is planned for all cladding to be replaced subject to building regulations approval."
In the meantime, the spokesman recommended all residents familiarise themselves with the current evacuation strategy.
- Concerned residents can contact the managing agents on 01473 558583.