North Bank Sheffield

THE RESIDENTS of the North Bank building still ‘face being kicked out of their homes’ due to being unable to afford to pay £15,000 per week for a waking watch.

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.

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’.

An waking watch is patrolling lower floors until the system was ‘up and running’. 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’s £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 ‘tens of thousands’ to ‘put right’.

In late December, 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.

Last month it was reported that Love Your Block had told residents they need to be evacuated again ‘for the second time in just over a month’ 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 SYFRS was set to be issuing another emergency prohibition notice accordingly.

Most recently last month, Love Your Block did manage to pay some of the costs and avert the planned evacuation, but residents feared a ‘weekly’ eviction threat due to the issues. The building management firm was ‘struggling to fund’ the waking watch, and until the new fire alarm system is installed the building is at risk of being ‘shut down’.

Love Your Block confirmed that while it is ‘currently arranging’ the alarm installation, ‘insufficient funds’ might force the building to close, with a spokesperson commenting: ‘Following installation of the first phase of the fire alarm system that allowed residents to return to their flats on the upper floors before Christmas, we are now arranging installation of the second phase covering the lower floors.

‘A waking watch remains in place on the lower floors until the alarm can be fitted - however the service charges are facing a severe shortage of funds that means that the waking watch is at risk of being revoked. We secured funds to cover debts of about £90,000 by 5pm on Friday to avoid closure of the building today, but unless overdue service charges are paid in full, the risk remains that there will be insufficient funds to keep the building open.

‘The finances are being monitored continuously and we are pursuing all options to urgently collect overdue service charges.’

Mail Online has now reported that residents again ‘face being kicked out of their homes’ because they cannot afford to pay for the waking watch, with another evacuation averted last week ‘before a last-minute scramble for cash granted them a stay of execution’. The news outlet noted that the delays in releasing government funding for the alarms means the waking watch ‘will remain in place an extra month’, costing leaseholders £60,000.

Paul McCormack, director of Love Your Block, said that the government’s recently announced cladding funding ‘didn’t help’ because the cladding’s removal was being funded via the previous £1.6bn scheme, with Love Your Block telling residents last week that it had ‘run out of funds’ for the waking watch. An agreement with the landlord was made to ‘stump up cash’, but this was not confirmed.

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