North Bank Sheffield

AFTER RESIDENTS were evacuated from the North Bank building earlier this month, and despite being able to move back in before Christmas, residents have demanded answers about the issues.

Earlier this month, the North Bank on Wicker Riverside in Sheffield was served a prohibition notice by South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service (SYFRS), with five floors evacuated and residents given emergency accommodation. The evacuation of the sixth to 10th floors came after SYFRS had undertaken an inspection, and found ‘issues’ relating to both smoke ventilation and fire escape procedures.

Block management company Love Your Block had flagged up problems to SYFRS during the routine inspection, with other issues established including cavity wall and cladding problems. The company’s Paul McCormack said that ‘we are doing absolutely everything that we can to support the residents, and are having multiple conversations with [SYFRS] and the council’. SYFRS said it had been a ‘difficult decision’ to make so close to Christmas, but adding that ‘safety was a priority’.

Last month, SYFRS confirmed it would deploy a fire safety team to inspect all of the region’s high rise residential tower blocks by the end of 2021. The plans for ‘all high-rise residential tower blocks’ saw its team – funded by a government grant – start to inspect all buildings 18m or taller or with six or more storeys ‘as part of a programme launched in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire’. The inspections will assess fire safety measures in each block.

Later that monthfour blocks in the city were set to be investigated as they have ‘risky cladding or insulation’, including the Metis building in the city centre which has aluminium composite material cladding. Residents of North Bank have been offered emergency accommodation, with resident Ryan Spence noting that they were told at around 7.30pm one evening that they would need to leave.

He added that ‘the building has failed every single fire regulations it turns out and every person from the sixth floor onwards to the 10th floor have been forced to leave tonight or face arrest’, with 35 of the 10 storey block’s 132 flats in the upper section affected. Mr McCormack noted in turn that the upper floors could ‘be reoccupied when a full evacuation alarm system is in place’ to alert residents in the event of a fire, rather than the stay put policy currently in place.

An additional measure saw a waking watch patrol lower floors until the system was ‘up and running’, with an SYFRS spokesperson commenting: ‘Business fire safety inspectors have issued a prohibition notice on the building for a number of fire safety issues. Our fire inspectors will continue to work with the business owner to support them in resolving the issues, and to enable the notice to be lifted.’

Sheffield County Council’s Paul Wood said that the council’s enforcement arrangements would be used to ‘ensure works are carried out by the building owner and its managing company so that residents can return to their homes promptly and if possible before Christmas’, stating in turn that ‘we are appalled that despite advice this building has fire safety issues that puts at risk residents and we are working closely with SYFRS’.

The Star has now reported on the latest news relating to the block, adding that 35 of the building’s 132 flats were evacuated, but residents ‘should be back home in time for Christmas’ after a new fire alarm system was fitted. The waking watch installed, costing around £2,000 per day, have now had to be posted on every floor ‘and will need to stay until’ the new fire alarm system is installed by the end of this week.

Resident Jenni Garrett, who lives on the second floor, ‘is demanding to know why’ the issues ‘hadn’t been picked up earlier’, adding that ‘it is such a huge failure of regulation’ and that ‘I blame the government. It is their job to regulate this stuff. It should never have been signed off as safe’. She had bought her flat in April 2019, and said all surveys came back ‘with nothing untoward’ and the mortgage lender ‘signing off on the sale’.

However, she and other leaseholders are concerned they will be ‘held liable’ for the ‘failures of those who designed the building’ and ‘pay tens of thousands’ to fix the issues. She added: ‘This isn’t our fault. But under the leaseholder contract we will be expected to cover these costs. It will be an awful lot of money to find before Christmas. The first thing we want is for the government to provide us emergency funding so we can get a new alarm system which will remove the need for the waking watch.’

Ms Garrett contacted local MP Paul Blomfield as soon as the prohibition notice was issued, and he and Sheffield Council ‘had been really helpful so far’ alongside Love Your Block, who ‘were doing all they could to remedy the problem’. Mr Blomfield met Building Safety Minister Lord Greenhalgh this week, and with the recent government announcement of £30m to fund waking watch costs, this ‘will be used to pay for both the costs of the waking watch and the new fire alarm’.

Mr Blomfield said: ‘I have been meeting with Sheffield leaseholders impacted by the cladding scandal and other building safety issues for some time, including those in Wicker Riverside. After Friday’s prohibition order and evacuation, I secured a meeting with the building safety minister Lord Greenhalgh and pressed him to ensure the problems are fixed at no cost to the people who live there. Leaseholders have been let down and we cannot allow them to pick up the costs for a crisis they didn’t create.’

Another resident, student Alexander Deane, said he ‘would have never bought’ his flat had he known about fire safety issues, stating: ‘When we got the knock at the door on Friday I was in shock but at the moment I feel angry and confused. I just don’t understand how this hasn’t been picked up until now. I live on the eighth floor and we only had one fire escape so had no choice but to leave.’

The news outlet pointed out however that even when the alarm is fitted, at an expected cost of £20,000, the block is ‘still understood to have cladding issues’ that could cost residents ‘tens of thousands’ to ‘put right’. Mr Deane added: ‘They are saying the cladding work could be up to £50,000 per leaseholder.

‘There is no way we should be expected to pay that. We want the government to step in to say we won’t have to cover these costs ourselves. It should be the people who designed and built the building who pay.’