‘No immediate safety concerns’ at Portsmouth student block

‘No immediate safety concerns’ at Portsmouth student block

FOLLOWING THE student accommodation block fire in Bolton, the Department for Education (DfE) confirmed that there are no ‘immediate’ safety concerns at the combustibly clad The Tower.

Late last month, Highbury College’s 10 storey accommodation tower in Portsmouth was revealed to have failed the government’s fire safety tests due to its aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding. A £2.9m bill was revealed for removing and replacing the cladding on the college’s 65 room tower, which houses students aged between 16 and 18.

The ‘cash-strapped’ college is ‘waiting to hear’ whether it will be awarded any funding for the work, with a spokeswoman stating that Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service had already visited to undertake a safety check. She added that there are ‘robust and appropriate’ fire safety measures that ‘mitigate the risks from fire’, and that it ‘declared the building is safe for continued use’.

A spokesman meanwhile stated that planning permission for the work was secured in August, and added: ‘The safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is of upmost importance and we continue to fully engage with the government-wide work, including all relevant agencies, to ensure all of our buildings are safe including the ongoing project to replace the cladding.

‘The project has recently received full planning permission and an appointment of a contractor is expected in December with a start on site soon after. The works are expected to take 12 months. We communicate fully with our students and residence and will continue to do so in the future.’

The college’s chair of governors, Tim Mason, had been asked whether they had been aware of the test failure, and he responded that ‘I don’t know if we were told. I can’t remember’, while another spokesperson ‘declined to comment’ on whether its board or resident students were ‘ever told’. The college applied to the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) for up to £5m, with meeting minutes making it ‘clear’ that the group finance director told the board he was confident recladding would be ‘100% funded by the ESFA’.

Now, FE Week has reported that the DfE says there remains ‘no immediate safety concerns’ at the halls of residence, and its spokesperson also commented that the department is ‘still considering’ the funding application, with a decision to ‘be made in due course’. It also transpired that buildings housing students under the age of 18 are ‘in-scope’ for Ofsted social care inspections, but Ofsted said that the ESFA ‘had not made them aware’ of The Tower, and so it had not inspected it.

The college had been telling parents that the building was Ofsted regulated, and has been saving ‘around’ £5,000 over the past three years over what Ofsted calls an ‘annual routine fee, set in regulations by the DfE, for the inspection of the college’s residential provision’. It also blamed the ESFA for not notifying Ofsted, stating it had ‘declared in the college Individual Learner Record from 2016/17 onwards and as such would have been accessible to the ESFA’.

An Ofsted spokesperson confirmed that the DfE had ‘still not’ asked it to inspect The Tower, adding: ‘We inspect residential provision in colleges at the request of DfE. When they inform us that a college has residential provision, we will inspect it within the timescale in our policy. But, if they want us to go in sooner, they can ask us.’

The Cube building in Bolton caught fire on Friday evening, with the six storey building seeing fire spread ‘extremely rapidly’. Two people were injured in the fire, which began on the fourth floor, saw the top floor ‘gutted’ and the fourth and fifth floors ‘visibly damaged’, with 200 GMFRS firefighters and 40 appliances required to fight it ‘at its height’.

Over 100 students were evacuated, with eyewitnesses stating that the fire was ‘crawl[ing] up the cladding like it was nothing’, had ‘quickly exposed’ the building’s frame, and had been ‘climbing up and to the right’ due to wind, flames ‘bubbling from the outside and then being engulfed from the outside’. It was also described as having grown ‘like crazy’ and spreading ‘so rapidly’, while reports claimed that fire alarms in some flats ‘were not loud enough’.

Students stated that alarms ‘go off almost every day’ in the building, which led to confusion ‘over whether it was a drill or a false alarm’. GMFRS had requested a fire safety assessment in 2018, including a cladding assessment, with ‘unspecified’ works undertaken – according to council records, it was reclad with high pressure laminate (HPL) in 2018.

Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, wrote to ‘all university chancellors’ today and asked them to ‘review fire safety procedures and safeguards across residential, teaching [and] research accommodation’, also asking them to ‘report back to me as swiftly as possible’.