‘It’s like living through torture’ Tower block residents made homeless over post-Grenfell fire risks
The fire service ordered the last of the residents at Cardinal Lofts in Ipswich to leave the building as Michael Gove told parliament developers who failed to sign up to building safety contract face ban.
This week Suffolk Fire and Rescue issued a prohibition notice on the building meaning the fire defects they have uncovered are so serious that people must leave their homes immediately.
It’s the latest development in a long-running saga at the building, which had no fire alarms until temporary devices were installed recently and has severe fire compartmentation issues that mean a fire could spread quickly.
In November last year the 15 flats on the top three floors of the tower block were evacuated over safety fears. Last month the freeholder Grey GR ordered the rest of the flats should be cleared with residents shipped out to hotels.
A small group of residents like Hamblion have held out, arguing that there is no indication of how long it will take to fix the building. But this week the fire service announced it had uncovered more serious structural issues that were “significantly worse” than previously thought.
“I can’t begin to tell you how upsetting it felt to hear the news. It was a real kick in the guts and even with everything going on it comes as a shock again,” said Hamblion, 49-year-old marketing director who has lived at the property for nine years.
“I was sitting at my desk when I received the email, being informed that you’re homeless by email is quite impersonal anyway. Nobody has even spoken to me or offered me alternative accommodation so, quite frankly, as things stand I’m going to stay in my flat and wait.
“But then at the same time, I’m also battling with the concept that I’m living in a property that’s so dangerous the fire service wants me to evacuate it. It’s like living through torture.”
Cardinal Lofts freeholder Grey GR is owned by Railpen, the pension fund for railways workers.
Toby Gray, Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service’s (SFRS) area manager for prevention and protection, criticised the freeholder for failing to tell residents the extent of the issues with the property.
“Had we been made aware of these dangerous defects when the first prohibition notice was issued, months of uncertainty and confusion for those living at Cardinal Lofts may have been avoided,” said Gray.
“Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service has repeatedly urged Grey GR to provide a timeline for remediation works to give residents the clarity they deserve, and remains committed to working with partners, including the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, to seek the best outcome for all those affected.”
SFRS’s Gray added: “We can back up everything we have said and done, but have decided to focus our efforts on working towards a resolution for residents rather than arguing with Grey GR.”
Grey GR told The Big Issue it “strongly refuted” the fire service’s suggestion that it had uncovered new information that led to the prohibition notice.
A Grey GR spokesperson said: “We are encouraged to hear that Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service have now reached the same conclusion based on the reports shared with them in February, although the lack of notice given to us on their serving of the prohibition notice was disappointing and we had to react quickly to ensure alternative accommodation was secured and residents were supported during the evacuation.
“We understand that this is a distressing time for residents. The prohibition notice issued yesterday by SFRS aligns with the recommendation from Grey GR four weeks ago – that the building be evacuated to ensure resident safety. We ask all remaining residents still residing in Cardinal Lofts to comply with the prohibition notice.”
A spokesperson for campaign group Ipswich Cladiators called for a meeting with the fire service and Railpen. The fire service confirmed to The Big Issue it will now meet with residents on March 17.
They said: “So far, both organisations have failed to treat us as humans and if they continue down this path, their reputations will receive irreparable damage.”
Michael Gove called on Railpen to “do right” by residents in the building in the House of Commons on Tuesday.
“While pension funds of course have fiduciary responsibilities and all the rest of it, it is vital that we do right by the residents of this building,” said the housing secretary. “I hope I will have the chance to visit Ipswich soon, to make good on that commitment.”
The situation in Ipswich showed the long-running building safety crisis, which was uncovered by the Grenfell disaster almost six years ago, is still a long way from being solved.
Gove told parliament 39 housing developers, including big builders Bellway, Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey, had signed up to fix life-critical defects in buildings over 11 metres in height caught up in the crisis. That will see 1,100 buildings fixed with more than £2bn of renovations carried out.
The deadline to sign the building safety contract passed earlier this week with 11 developers failing to sign.
Ballymore, Galliard Homes and Rydon Homes – the sister company of the lead contractor for the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower – were among the developers who have not yet signed the contract.
Gove warned the developers they face being locked out of the housing market until they sign up but he admitted they will be given a “little leeway” to sign up in the days ahead before he lays out the details of his responsible actors scheme.
“Those developers who have been invited to sign the remediation contract, but who have not agreed to live up to their responsibilities, will not be eligible to join the responsible actors scheme,” added Gove.
“They will not be able to commence new developments in England or receive building control approval for work already under way.”
In response, Labour shadow housing secretary Lisa Nandy said Gove’s contract was a “step forward, but there are many more steps to go”.
Nandy added: “The contract, the secretary of state says, will cover over 1,000 buildings.
“Given that his own department has estimated that there are between 6,000 and 9,000 unsafe 11 to 18-metre buildings alone, it clearly only deals with a fraction of the problem.”
For leaseholders living in buildings not included in the government’s solutions to the post-Grenfell building safety crisis, like Hamblion, the wait goes on.
“It definitely is another tiny step forward but it’s certainly of absolutely zero help to me who’s potentially being made homeless. I need help now and that help isn’t there,” she added.
“I just can’t begin to explain what this feels like, to be in the situation where I am completely out of control, completely innocent and my home is being taken away from me. How can this be right? We’re six years on from Grenfell, surely we need emergency legislation to help people like me out of this hole.”