Sheffield evac

RESIDENTS OF The North Bank building had already been evacuated in December after fire safety tests failed, and they will now have to evacuate again due to funding issues.

In early December, the North Bank on Wicker Riverside 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’.

In November, 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 were offered emergency accommodation, with resident Ryan Spence noting 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’.

In total, 35 of the 10 storey block’s 132 flats in the upper section were affected, though at the time it was said 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’.

An SYFRS spokesperson commented: ‘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’.

Later in December, a new fire alarm system was fitted and a waking watch installed at a cost of £2,000 per day, posted on every floor until the system was fully installed. The government announcement of £30m to fund waking watch costs ‘will be used to pay for both the costs of the waking watch and the new fire alarm’, but the block is ‘still understood to have cladding issues’ that could cost residents ‘tens of thousands’ to ‘put right’.

Most recently last month, residents were able to return home before Christmas thanks to the government’s waking watch funding, but faced bills for the watch until February of thousands of pounds’ as the waking watch will need to be funded ‘until at least’ then, while the rest of the fire alarm system is fitted.

Its installation was delayed due to both Christmas and the COVID-19 restrictions, with leaseholder Jenni Garratt noting that the government is only ‘paying for the cost of the fire alarm’, and leaseholders are ‘still faced with a bill of thousands’ for the watches. She stated: ‘Leaseholders will have to pay for the waking watch which is in place until the full alarm system can be fitted. Which given the dates we’ve had suggested, will be over £100,000 as waking watch costs £2,000 per day.

‘We’re very grateful for the government funding for the fire alarm but we’ll all still be paying a lot of money for all of this. The prohibition notice was lifted on Saturday after a successful test of the newly installed evacuation fire alarm on floors 6-10. The fire service were there to observe the test and so they were satisfied to remove the notice.

‘Everyone is now back home but leaseholders are awaiting the bills. I paid £2,000 at the weekend for an emergency service charge to cover the costs just through to the end of Jan 21. My usual annual SC is less than £2,000. We've been told that completion of the fire alarm on the rest of the floors will be early February due to Christmas and supply issues.’

SYFRS assistant chief fire officer Tony Carlin said, when the prohibition notice was lifted, that: ‘I would like to thank all the residents and the responsible person who have worked so well with our fire safety inspectors and Sheffield City Council to enable the Prohibition Notice to be lifted in such a short amount of time. We are pleased that residents will now be able to spend Christmas in their own homes.’

However, The Star has now reported that the residents have been told by Love Your Block that they need to be evacuated again ‘for the second time in just over a month’ this afternoon, because the company ‘could not raise enough money to continue paying’ for the waking watch. Noting that SYFRS were ‘aware of the situation’, Love Your Block added that the fire and rescue service would be issuing another emergency prohibition notice accordingly.

In a letter to residents, Love Your Block’s managing director Paul McCormack stated: ‘I am sorry to have to give this news. Despite our best efforts to raise funds to pay for the waking watch, there remains a substantial shortfall in cash needed to pay for this service that has already been provided. The company providing the waking watch have offered to maintain service until noon on Monday after which they will withdraw their wardens.

‘[SYFRS] are aware of the situation and they will issue an emergency prohibition notice on the whole of Wicker Riverside immediately thereafter. We continue to pursue the service charge debtors in the hope of obtaining sufficient funds, but the payments from private leaseholders have reduced to a trickle so unless Nine Developments Ltd pay their debt, it is inevitable that the building will close on Monday.

‘We wanted to give you advance warning so that you can plan to vacate the building on Monday afternoon. This will affect all flats, even those on the upper floors that already have an alarm fitted. To give a glimmer of hope, I am pleased to share that the fire alarm quote is now available. Funding for the alarm will come from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

‘We hope to have the alarm in place by mid-February which should then allow the building to be reoccupied. If we receive payment of sufficient service charges before noon on Monday, we will let you know immediately.’

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