Families left in tower block with ‘highly flammable’ cladding amid court row over who pays
2020 SARAH LUCY BROWN
Cladding still in place on Ipswich’s St Francis Tower has been described as being “more flammable even than Grenfell” in an ongoing court battle over who should foot a £3.6million repair bill.
Current owner R G Securities (No. 2) Ltd claims the 16-storey building in Franciscan Way was covered in highly flammable cladding material when it was refurbished between 2006 and 2009.
It is suing the building contractor R. Maskell Ltd (Maskell) over renovation works it claims left the tower “unfit for habitation”, as it seeks to recover the £3.6m cost of replacing the cladding with a safer material.
But a significant amount of the original cladding remains on the tower, despite work to remove it starting in September 2018 – with owners of the block’s 116 flats told earlier this year that windows need replacing before a new system is fitted.
Leaseholders were originally told they had to foot the bill, paying £21,000 per flat.
The cladding is largely made up of high-pressure laminate (HPL) panels, with a small amount of Grenfell-style aluminium composite material (ACM) on higher levels.
Often made from compressed wood and paper to produce colourful patterns on new buildings, government fire safety experts last year demanded combustible HPL panels be removed from high rises “as soon as possible”.
In 2018, a tribunal heard the cladding on St Francis Tower had the ability to produce “two thirds more heat than petrol” if ignited. The judge said “the risk to life was intolerable”.
It is the same substance intended for use on student accommodation block the Bolton Cube, which was engulfed in flames late last year.
MORE: St Francis Tower – What we’ve learned about safety of tower block a year on
A former resident of St Francis Tower, who moved out over fears for her safety, said it “horrifies” her to think what might have happened.
“It’s so scary,” she said. “You’re reminded of it every time you enter or leave.
“I was in there for a long time on crutches – I wouldn’t have been able to get out.”
Suffolk’s chief fire officer Mark Hardingham said the service had a good relationship with everyone involved in reducing the fire risk at St Francis Tower, adding that a sprinkler, fire detection and alarm system have been installed since the problem was first identified in 2018.
The current owner’s case against Maskell was outlined in a High Court judgement handed down by Judge Peter Fraser on Wednesday, where Maskell’s bid to prevent the case facing a future trail was thrown out.
RG Securities allege “the cladding system used at the property is more flammable even than that used on Grenfell Tower” and that no “reasonably competent developer” would have used it.
MORE: Flat owners ‘anxious’ over growing cost of tower cladding repairs
The firm also refers to other apparent defects, such as a lack of improvements to windows to “prevent people falling out” and a lack of internal fire protection, including fire doors.
It is also claimed that the renovation works did not comply with building regulations or have the required approval – with R G Securities accusing Maskell of concealing this information when the company purchased the block in 2015.
Maskell denies all claims brought against it, and said the developer liaised closely with the local fire brigade throughout the refurbishment process – following all recommendations made by them.
Lawyers for Maskell argue that all refurbishment work, including the cladding panels, received the correct approval.
MORE: Could budget announcement help owners of St Francis Tower flats in Ipswich?
The judge, dismissing Maskell’s application to have the case heard without a trial, said: “Reasonable grounds exist for believing that a fuller investigation into the facts of the case would add to or alter the evidence available to a trial judge, and so affect the outcome of the case in any event.”
R G Securities is also suing Allianz and Building Lifeplans Ltd over claims the firms did not pay out under an insurance contract for the expected costs of the renovation work.
The current owners are yet to clarify when the rest of the cladding will be pulled down and replaced.
During lockdown, leaseholders say there has been “little or no movement”.
Ipswich Borough Council chiefs said they are monitoring its progress.
St Francis Tower: A timeline
The current owners of St Francis Tower 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.
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.
MORE: St Francis Tower flat owners take cladding fight to Westminster
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.
To this day, the cladding remains on the block, and the owners and managing agents are yet to shed light on what happens next.
In February 2020, Tom Hunt took up former Ipswich MP Sandy Martin’s mantle and joined leaseholders on a march in London urging the Government to pay up for cladding repairs.
HPL panels were included in a new £1bn building safety fund announced in the Budget in March, bringing fresh hope to leaseholders.
Mr Hunt, who previously pledged to “fight like a lion” for the tower block’s residents and leaseholders, said the £1bn pot was a “good start”.
But he warned it will not be enough to cover all affected buildings across the UK, adding that the Government should look at increasing the size of the fund.
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