Building laws overhaul urged over fire safety

Building laws overhaul urged over fire safety

SLOUGH BOROUGH Council has urged the government to ‘overhaul’ planning laws after a developer was given permission to build more housing despite its ‘track record’ over fire safety.

Last year, residents of Nova House in Slough were found liable to pay for a fire watch at the building, which failed a cladding safety test post Grenfell, after it was reported in October 2017 that the building failed the government’s safety tests, before further fire service investigations ‘revealed other hazards inside’, Slough Borough Council spending over £40,000 to hire a fire appliance ‘to be on standby outside’.

In turn, it was paying around £2,000 per day for firefighters ‘to watch over’ the privately owned block. That November, it was revealed that the £4m estimated cost to replace the cladding and undertake other work ‘may be footed by insurers instead of leaseholders’, but in January 2018 it was reported that leaseholders were sent bills for £14,843 ‘to cover potential cladding costs’ by Ringley, the managers of the building.

In that same month, the council said that the takeover would be for a ‘nominal price’, but the cost of fireproofing the building ‘would come from the council’s capital budget’. Leaseholders received letters from Ground Rent Estates 5 (GRE5), which owns the freehold and was bought by SBC, in December 2018 that stated that after a first tier tribunal, it had been determined that leaseholders were liable for the cost of the waking watch.

The council had spent almost £350,000 on a private fire appliance outside the 68 flat building ‘as a precaution while safety measures including heat sensors in the hallways were installed’. Since then, GRE5 had been paying for two people to be stationed at the site as part of a waking watch ‘who can take immediate action in the event of a fire before emergency services arrive’.

The cost of that was not publicly available due to GRE5 being a private company ‘despite’ the council owning it, and its letters to leaseholders stated that they had been found liable not only for the waking watch costs, but also the £350,000 private fire crew. In addition, the aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding on the exterior of Nova House ‘is still yet to be replaced and a question mark remains over whether this cost will fall on the leaseholders, GRE5, or insurers’.

In January this year, insurers agreed ‘with caveats’ to fund the cost of compartmentation work at Nova House in Slough, but the issue of cladding funding ‘remains up in the air’. SBC has now urged the government to ‘overhaul’ planning laws to stop the likes of original developers of Nova House – now working for Click Properties – from being able to get planning permission for building works in future.

TalkRADIO stated that concerns were raised by SBC after the previous developers ‘were given permission to build more housing’, with SBC ‘not allowed’ to take the company’s track record into account when considering the most recent planning application. Writing to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), SBC urged it to look ‘very carefully’ at the matter, with the developers allowed permission for a nine storey block 100 yards from Nova House.

Remedial work on Nova House has been agreed and is due to begin before the end of 2019, with Click Properties insisting it ‘adhered to regulations’ when converting Nova House from offices into flats in 2015, and ‘carried the best available buildings warranty at the time’. A spokesperson added: ‘Click Properties Ltd will ensure that any new projects in Slough - and all others - will meet all and in some cases surpass current building and safety regulations.’

Work its new project is ‘yet to begin’ but SBC believes the Nova House conversion ‘raised other questions’ about laws, as it was legally done but without planning permission, under permitted development. SBC fears that this use ‘could enable buildings not to be of the same high standard’, and wants the issue looked at and the inspection system nationalised.

Mike England, SBC’s interim director of place and development, said: ‘It doesn't seem like an appropriate situation. It’s widely known that a building has been delivered which isn’t safe and yet the same people might potentially be involved in building another building very close by. Unfortunately the track record of a developer is not a material consideration in planning terms. So the local authority was not in a position to refuse permission.’

He added his concern about buildings being declared safe by approved private inspectors, stating: ‘There doesn’t appear to be a way in which that approved inspector can be held to account for their mistakes.’ An MHCLG spokesperson responded: ‘We have committed up to £600 million to fund the removal and replacement of unsafe ACM cladding on high-rise social and private residential buildings.’