Thursday 22 February 2024
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Council’s £20m bill to fix fire safety failings at London apartment building

Mansfield District Council faces an almost £20m bill to fix fire safety problems at a block of flats it owns in London.

The building was bought by the council as an investment in 2017, but parts of its internal structures now need to be ripped out and rebuilt following advice from an independent safety assessment.

People living in the building have spoken of their lives being “in limbo” after the authority delayed the repair works on two separate occasions.

Charlotte Veal 30 and her partner Harry Palmer 29 outside their home at 50 52 Bedford Road Clapham
Charlotte Veal, 30, and her partner Harry Palmer, 29, outside their home at 50-52 Bedford Road, Clapham

The Labour-led authority is asking residents in the building, at 50-52 Bedford Road, in Clapham, to temporarily leave their homes while it fixes fire safety issues.

The council says it has taken measures to ensure the building currently remains safe to occupy.

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It comes after the London Fire Brigade, which has been talking to the authority since it bought the property, issued the building with a Notice of Fire Safety Deficiencies after finding a “number of” issues.

Neither the council nor the fire brigade have disclosed exactly what problems were found, but residents say they relate to issues “inside the walls” which would make it harder to contain a fire once it started.

The building was completed in 2017 and bought by the council in the same year.

It includes business space on the ground floor and 40 apartments above, spread across three blocks.

The building was bought by the then-Mansfield Independent Forum administration under a freehold agreement for £5.95m and added to the authority’s external property portfolio.

Most local councils have property investments, often including buildings outside their areas, so they can generate extra income.

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.

But it can now be revealed that, for four years, the authority has been investigating fire safety issues after they were first identified during an independent assessment in 2018.

The building was given planning consent by Lambeth Council in 2012. Papers relating to the building’s planning approval reveal no specific planning conditions were placed on the building relating to fire safety.

The Lambeth authority says this was commonplace at the time of the development. This was due to fire safety not being a material planning condition for multi-storey buildings prior to the Grenfell Tower disaster in June 2017.

Changes to guidance since have included requiring developers to submit fire statements as part of the planning application when creating highrise buildings – a requirement not in force before the disaster.

Lambeth Council has confirmed all planning and regulation considerations on the Clapham property would have been assessed on pre-2017 standards.

Mansfield District Council says it has taken safety steps to keep residents safe since it was made aware of the problems.

These measures include hiring 24-hour security to alert people in the event of a fire.

However, people living in the building have spoken out on the impact the planned work will have on their lives.

They’ve been told work will take place inside their homes requiring all the walls, floors and ceilings of each flat to be completely ripped out.

This will allow for the inside of the building to be rebuilt and for fire safety concerns to be addressed.

The work will also require all residents to leave their homes for up to a year and to remove all their belongings from the building.

The authority has committed to paying for temporary accommodation for each of the 40 households and will cover all other related fees.

However, some have have spoken about repeated delays in getting the work started and being left continually waiting as they look to move on with their lives.

Charlotte Veal, 30, and her 29-year-old partner Harry Palmer have lived in the building since it was first built.

The couple own their flat in a shared ownership agreement and had initially been told they were due to vacate it last year.

This was rescheduled to take place in August 2022 before again being delayed until next May.

Miss Veal said: “Our lives have been on hold during this situation, we want to move out.

“The council is going to align a decant specialist to take everybody and everything out [of the building]. We’re in the end block and we’ll be the first of three blocks to go.

“We’ll be moving out for between six months and a year. When we move out, the council has said it will pay for all the costs.

“Everything has got to be ripped out of the flats and we’ve got to take everything out of our own.

“It’s going to be very intrusive work – the floors, ceilings and walls have got to come out of the building.”

Her partner Mr Palmer has also revealed the frustrations of people inside the building who have been “delayed over and over again” in getting their homes sorted.

“We’re very frustrated,” he said.

“The initial date for the work was about a year ago, then it was August, and it has now been pushed back to May 2023 – but we don’t hear anything about why.

“All this time we’re stuck here. They’ve given us a choice of finding somewhere for us, or they will give us money to find somewhere else to live while this happens.

“We’re literally in limbo right now. We want to move on with our lives, to start a family, but we feel like we’ve got a noose around our necks.”

The council insists it has continued to keep residents up to date about when they will be asked to move out.

And, while it has not confirmed how much it expects to pay for rehousing the residents or for the overall works, its budgets reveal almost £19m will be needed over the next three years.

This includes £4.98m allocated in the 2022/23 budget, with £7.296m budgeted for 2023/24 and a further £6.472m in 2024/25.

A Freedom of Information request submitted earlier this year also revealed £943,956 has already been spent on the building since the issues first came to light.

This takes the total forecasted spend to £19.691m between 2018 and 2025.

The previous spending, which the authority says was used to fund “investigation works, enhanced security at the property and insurance premiums”,  includes £421,538 in the 2021/22 financial year.

A further £184,362 was spent in 2020/21, with £271,414 spent in 2019/20 and the remaining £66,642 in 2018/19.

However, a source at the council, who wished to remain anonymous, raised concerns about whether the authority will ever be able to get the money back and questioned the decision to buy the building.

They said: “It’s going to cost £20m to get it done. I wouldn’t hold my breath on the council getting the money back.

“Honestly, we shouldn’t have bought the building in the first place. We’re not a property developer, we’re a council there to deliver services to local people.

“Someone is definitely liable for this, it was all signed off, but the issue is: why did we even invest in an out-of-town building?”

A council spokesperson said the authority is “exploring all avenues” to recover any costs incurred through the works.

Commenting on the works specifically, the council says three phases will take place to address what it describes as “substantial but necessary” repairs.

Design and tender processes are ongoing, it adds, with the authority seeking contractors to resolve the situation.

The 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.”

The building is also home to international lift engineering firm KONE, which rents business space on the ground floor.

When approached for a comment, the company said it “takes safety seriously”.

A company spokesperson added it has “good dialogue” with the landlords of all its UK premises, including Mansfield District Council for its Clapham offices.

Commenting on fire regulations relevant when the building was first created, a Lambeth Council spokesperson said: “Planning permission was granted by Lambeth.

“The development would have been assessed against the Building Regulations applicable at the time of construction.

“Both the planning and building regulations regimes have been changed in response to the Grenfell Tower disaster.”

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