2019-06-07 St Francis Tower

In 2005 I was a Borough Councillor on the Planning Committee when we heard the application to refurbish St Francis Tower.  I remember saying privately that it was a shame the building wasn’t being demolished altogether.  I had visited residents before it was refurbished: the lifts often didn’t work – a serious issue for a 17-storey tower – public areas stank of urine, the open stairway was scary, there was terrible condensation, and the stained concrete was dispiriting for everyone who saw it.

 It’s very expensive to demolish a 17-storey concrete block, so it was sold for what I believe was a relatively small sum to developer R Maskell Ltd.  The Planning Application covered the intended appearance and the need to insulate the building.  What was not covered were the safety of the construction quality or the materials used – these are covered by Building Regulations which Councillors don’t see but in theory should be a far stricter safeguard.  Councils have to be very careful to only use planning issues to determine planning applications.  Building regulations should be a matter of fact, dependent on inspection.

 There was no reason for the Council to believe that the developer wouldn’t comply with the building regulations.  It would have been reassuring if Maskell had decided to use the Borough Council’s officers to inspect their compliance with building regulations, but they didn’t – in 2008 they sent the details off to the National House Building Council instead, which is an officially Approved private-sector building inspector.

 Maskell then sold the leases on the individual flats, and finally – once the flats were occupied – sold the freehold on the building to another company.  I assume that the majority of the cost of the leases on the flats would have been to cover the refurbishment costs.  But there are now serious issues about the quality and safety of that refurbishment work.

 2 years ago, Grenfell Tower in London went up in flames, killing 72 people and injuring more than 70 others.  The flammable cladding was aluminium composite material (ACM) and so to start off with only ACM cladding was scrutinised.  But tests showed that other materials were flammable too.  A tribunal in December of last year found that St Francis Tower was clad with high-pressure laminate which would have burned with nearly twice the energy of the ACM cladding at Grenfell, if it had caught fire.   The tribunal heard that the laminate didn’t meet building regulations when it was installed, the way the new windows were put in, with no barrier to the gap behind the insulation, didn’t meet building regulations either, and in some cases wood screws were used instead of proper masonry fixings – one panel actually fell off, no laughing matter on a 17-storey building.  The tribunal concluded that the cladding was “extremely hazardous” and “should never lawfully have been installed”.

 Now the majority of the cladding has been removed, the block is in a very sorry state. The leaseholders face enormous costs for removing it – and will probably face further costs if the block is re-clad in the correct materials.  I believe it is wrong that individual leaseholders should have to pay for failings which could only have been avoided by the developer.

 The building regulations do not appear to have been signed off.  NHBC issued a notice that they were the Approved Inspector to the Borough Council in 2005, but then withdrew it in 2016, and the Council had no legal right to interfere until NHBC had withdrawn.  I have written to NHBC to ask them to explain their actions but I have not yet seen a reply.

 The Council’s Building Control Service is local and able to inspect properly, and has a clear interest in doing a thorough job.  I believe one lesson from this whole sorry saga is that Building Control compliance ought to be issued by the local planning authority, and not farmed out to a third party employed by the developer.  I made this point in Parliament yesterday, and will continue until I get the message across.

 The other message is that the most accountable building owners are local councils.  Ipswich Borough owns one tower-block – Cumberland Tower – which is clad in fire-proof material, and has sprinklers throughout.  The Borough is not out to make the maximum profit; its role is to provide safe and healthy housing.  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.