The fire earlier this month at New Providence Wharf had echoes of the Grenfell Tower blaze which must have caused significant alarm and distress for the residents. Whilst you cannot currently escape the news for stories about cladding-related disputes and fire safety, this recent incident is a poignant reminder for many of why this issue can quite literally be life or death.
What happened in the New Providence Wharf fire?
The fire started in an eighth-floor flat and residents have commented that “thick smoke spread to the 18th floor; fire doors failed to close, allowing thick smoke to clog hallways”; and according to residents the waking watch wardens failed to alert and evacuate some occupiers. Waking watch wardens is a paid-for service, providing 24/7 patrol across all floors of high-rise tower blocks to ensure all residents are protected. The property’s evacuation policy said they would “go door-to-door knocking to evacuate all apartments using air horns”. Property developer, Ballymore has responded to say however that, “the waking watch successfully alerted and evacuated a significant number of residents across multiple floors within block D before the LFB arrived and took command of the evacuation process.”
The fire engulfed the ninth and tenth floors and resulted in fire officers carrying out 35 rescues, 22 using fire escape hoods, and a further 18 people self-evacuated; it required 20 fire pumps and involved 125 firefighters.
New Providence Wharf has Grenfell-style cladding and combustible wooden balconies. It was awaiting works to replace combustible cladding etc. at the time of the fire. If they have not already done so, all building owners are required to remove similar cladding on other residential buildings. Many landlords/building owners are currently being named and shamed for failure to comply with this and may face enforcement action.
A stalemate position?
Many leaseholders across the UK are locked in a stalemate position with developers over who should pay for these essential, but highly costly repairs and are also restricted from selling and/or re-mortgaging their properties, allowing leaseholders no clear route of escape. Our Property Disputes team recently wrote about the position with the cost of these repairs specifically relating to Right To Buy leases but the position remains unclear with regard to standard leases. On 18 May 2021, the Labour Party tabled an amendment to the recent Queen’s Speech that would set a legally enforceable 2022 deadline for cladding remediation and protect leaseholders from the costs of building safety work. It is also calling on the Government to set up a “National Cladding Taskforce”, modelled on the one set up in Australia when the country was facing its own cladding crisis.
The same difficult question is also heating up with regard to who is responsible for the significant costs of waking watch warden services. We are noticing a rise in the volume of requests for our support in advising in response to enforcement action against builders, developers and/or management companies seeking to force them to put a waking watch warden service in force, with those costs passed on to the leaseholders.
Our expert Regulatory, Construction, and Property Disputes teams can advise freeholders, developers and management companies served with enforcement notices by the fire services, to develop fire safety strategies for affected buildings, and to provide a route map through the law to enable their boards of directors to navigate the correct action for their sites. Do get in touch to explore your current obligations, your new duties under the Fire Safety Act 2021 and the forthcoming requirements under the Building Safety Bill.