Two former elected mayors of Mansfield District Council have defended the original decision to buy a London apartment building later found to have serious fire safety issues.
The authority is now facing a bill of around £19m to resolve the problem, despite only spending £5.95m on the property when the investment purchase went through in January 2017.
The building, at 50-52 Bedford Road in Clapham, was officially bought under the Mansfield Independent Forum administration, led by former elected mayor Kate Allsop, who was in charge of the council between 2015 and 2019.
However, the initial decisions to purchase the property and the allocate the funds were both made during the 2014/15 financial year, when the authority was under the control of her predecessor, Tony Egginton.
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The purchase was one of many out-of-town investments made by the political group under both mayoral periods as a way of being “creative” in finding extra cash to prop up services.
Now both Ms Allsop and Mr Egginton have spoken out and defended the Mansfield Independent Forum’s decision to invest in the building and other out-of-town venues.
Commenting on the problem for the first time since it was made public, both insisted the purchase was one of many ways the council found additional income to shore up budgets.
Ms Allsop says that, while the decision to buy the Clapham property was not taken by herself, professional advice was provided to council officers when making investments of this nature.
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She said: “I knew there were problems [with the building] when I was still mayor but since then I haven’t been brought up to date on it.
“The council took advice and there were a lot of professional people involved with this building, and all the regulations should have been met at the time.
“There’s always a risk to everything you do and now the council has a duty of care because it’s people’s homes.
“It’s vital the council gets this right and I’m sure it will be working hard to make sure that is the case.”
On the investment strategy itself, she added: “Investing outside the district brings a large amount of revenue into the district and means people in London are paying for the services people in Mansfield receive.
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“The money the council gets from the Government is minuscule so, if you want the services you need, you need to be creative. That’s what we were.
“It was a way of raising money during times of austerity. Ninety-nine per cent of every purchase went really well and brought money flooding into the district to be spent in the district.”
A 2018 document reveals the council receives annual rental income from the Clapham property totalling more than £300,000, while several flats have been sold off.
Other buildings bought during this period included Travelodge hotels in Edinburgh and Doncaster, a PureGym leisure centre in Manchester and a Volkswagen car garage in Glasgow.
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However, following the 2017 purchase of the Clapham building – which has business space on the ground floor and 40 flats above – a 2018 independent assessment found it had serious fire safety concerns.
Ms Allsop says the council “took advice” from professionals when purchasing the building and believed all regulations had been met during its construction.
And Lambeth Council, the authority that approved planning permission for the building, has confirmed regulations on high-rise buildings changed following the 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster.
The Labour-led London authority says that, prior to the disaster, fire safety was not a material planning condition – meaning it did not need to place specific conditions on the development to ensure it met fire safety standards.
The council added that, when reviewing the planning application, it was assessed on the relevant regulations and standards in place prior to the disaster.
After issues inside the building came to light, the London Fire Brigade later issued the building with a Notice of Fire Safety Deficiencies after finding a “number of” issues inside.
And, while neither Mansfield District Council nor the fire brigade have disclosed exactly what problems were found, residents in the flats say they relate to issues “inside the walls” which would make it harder to contain a fire.
The council has insisted it has taken measures to ensure the building currently remains safe to occupy.
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Ms Allsop’s predecessor Mr Egginton – who became the inaugural executive mayor in 2002 before retiring from the role in spring 2015 – says the purchase occurred late in his tenure and that he “cannot recall” details of the investment.
The original decision to allocate cash was taken in October 2014, six months before his retirement, although he says similar investments made under his leadership helped to bring “secure income into the authority”.
He told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “It would have been at the end of my watch but, with the investments at the time, we were looking to bring additional income into the coffers.
“We looked at the investments and to look outside the district to get secure income into the authority but, with this particular one, I cannot recall it.”
Works to remedy the fire safety issues will involve all floors, walls and ceilings being ripped out so the building can be rebuilt internally.
Residents living inside say they are being asked to leave their homes for up to a year while the works take place and some have spoken of their lives being left “in limbo” by repeated delays.
They say work was initially scheduled to start last year before being rearranged twice – firstly to August 2022 before recently being delayed again until May next year.
People in all of the 40 flats will be asked to take all belongings out of the building during the relocation period and the council has committed to funding any fees incurred by each household.
And, while the authority has not confirmed how much the works are going to cost, its capital programme reveals almost £19m will be needed spread over the next three years.
Mansfield District Council is now led by elected Mayor Andy Abrahams.
A council spokesperson said: “Having a balanced portfolio of investment has and continues to give the authority revenue stability and allows the council to invest in services when external funding streams are reducing.
“Following an independent assessment of the building in 2018, the council took immediate action to address several fire safety concerns and keep tenants and residents safe in their homes.
“The council has worked co-operatively with the London Fire Brigade and with tenants to ensure additional temporary fire protection measures are in place so the property is safe to occupy until the remedial works have been completed.
“The council, as a responsible landlord and property owner, has undertaken an extensive investigation into the fire safety issues at the property and determined a programme of required works to remedy the concerns.
“In the meantime, the council is satisfied it has taken all necessary steps to ensure the immediate safety of its tenants and the building is safe to occupy.
“There are three phases of work to the building, with tenants being temporarily relocated whilst these phased works are delivered. We expect the work to begin in 2023.
“The works required are substantial but necessary for the long-term safety of the building.
“The council has kept the London Fire Brigade up to date on the position and we continue to co-operate in all respects with them.
“Rest assured, we as a responsible landlord have always put safety first and will continue to do so until the remedial works at the property are complete.”